About Me

My photo
Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Friday, 14 September 2012

On This Day, 14 September; John Gould's birthday

John Gould is becoming increasingly well known in Australia, though many of us in the natural history paddock have known of him for a very long time. There is an increasing literature about him, so I won't attempt more than an outline here. There are also some popular and persistent myths, which I would like to refute. He has often been dismissed as a mere biological entrepreneur; he was indeed an entrepreneur - like any natural history tour operator or natural history author. Given that I meet both those criteria, I may well be seen to have a jaundiced view, and of course I don't see it as a bad thing per se.  He has also been accused of taking credit for others' artistic work, but he never claimed such credit, and in fact did many of the sketches which his artists, including his wonderfully talented wife Elizabeth, completed and coloured.
Sand Goanna, Varanus gouldii, named for John Gould.
So who was he, for those not familiar? He was an Englishman who taught himself first taxidermy (he established himself when he got the gig of stuffing George IV's late lamented pet giraffe) then taxonomy; the Royal Zoological Society employed him in both capacities. In 1837 Charles Darwin, just back from the Beagle expedition which would, in time, change the scientific world, approached Gould to identify his Galapagos specimens. It was Gould, ironically a staunch creationist, which was the norm for the time, who recognised their significance. 

In 1838 he and Elizabeth sailed to Australia and spent two years here collecting specimens to describe and illustrate for a 'book', The Birds of Australia, which was actually 7 volumes (and a later supplement). Both the science and the art work are simply superb. (Thanks to the National Library of Australia we can all enjoy it here). He could have just written a popular account for sale, but his science was impeccable. A measure of that is that by my count he is the author of 175 Australian bird names and 39 mammal names which are still in use. By any standard, this is truly remarkable; sloppily applied names simply don't last, and even the normal processes of changing understanding of relationships inevitably leads to changes.
Gouldian Finch, Erythrura gouldiae, named by John Gould for Elizabeth Gould.
Above, Territory Wildlife Park near Darwin.
Below, flock of wild birds, mostly juveniles, Gregory River NP, Northern Territory
(muddy old slide, but just to prove I've seen them!)


Elizabeth died tragically at the age of just 37 in 1841, but John lived and worked on for another 40 years. The landscape of Australian bird and mammal taxonomy will never be the same again.


Beth said...

You won't believe it but on Friday 14th September I was visiting the Berlin Natural History Museum, en route to a meeting in Norway. I was lucky enough to be shown an original Gould volume from the Museum's library! Happy Birthday, John Gould!

Ian Fraser said...

Wow, what a privilege. I so envy you; well done and what an amazing coincidence re the date!