About Me

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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.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

On This Day 13 March; death of Ronald Gunn

It's probably fair to say that Ronald Gunn is not widely known, at least outside of his adoptive home in Tasmania, and outside the world of botanical history. Part of the fault is his own - though hard-wording and a most diligent field collector, he published very little of his work, leaving that to others.

Born in South Africa in 1808, he followed his army father to Reunion, Scotland and Barbados, and eventually into the army himself, albeit as a clerk. Urged by his older brother William, he resigned and sailed to join him in Hobart, where Ronald obtained a position under William as overseer of convicts in Launceston, and later became police magistrate and eventually private secretary to Governor Franklin. He went on to be a member of the Tasmanian parliament, and then Deputy Commissioner of Crown Lands and State Coroner.
Ronald Gunn in 1848, by Thomas Bock; courtesy State Library of New South Wales.
From our perspective however, his key appointment was as estate manager for William Lawrence in 1841, before he (Gunn) went into politics. Lawrence was one of Tasmania's leading land owners and a highly intelligent and scientific man in his own right, but the key connection for Gunn was the development of his friendship with Lawrence's son, the ill-fated Robert. Young Lawrence only lived in Tasmania for eight years before his premature death on his 26th birthday, but in that time he was an assiduous correspondent with and collector for the great British botanist William Hooker, then of Glasgow University, later director of Kew Gardens. Lawrence introduced Gunn to Hooker, and for the rest of his life Gunn travelled throughout the state, including its very wildest parts, gathering plant specimens to send to Hooker.
Gunn's Willow-herb Epilobium gunnianum Family Onagraceae, Namadgi National Park near Canberra.
The type specimen was collected in Tasmania, and named by German Epilobium specialist Heinrich Haussknecht.
He became close friends with Hooker's son Joseph, who spent some time in Tasmania travelling with him; Joseph in due course would succeed his father at Kew, and achieve his own eminence in the botanical world. Gunn of course supplied him with plants too.
Deciduous Beech Nothofagus gunni Family Nothofagaceae, Cradle Mountain NP, Tasmania.
This is one of the very few deciduous plants native to southern Australia.
It was named in Gunn's honour by his friend Joseph Hooker.
While best known for his plant expertise, as befitted a good naturalist of his age - and he was a very good one - Gunn also took an active interest in zoology and geology. He was responsible for sending the first live Thylacine back to England, and accompanied John Gould on his Tasmanian expeditions. In addition he took an active interest in the reptiles and snails of the island.

Eastern Barred Bandicoot Perameles gunnii; now almost extinct on mainland Australia, but still
quite common in Tasmania. The type specimen was sent by Gunn to London, where it was named
for him by zoologist John Edward Gray.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
He edited the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science and was recognised in London by being elected to both the Linnean and Royal Socities - both most prestigious appointments. His private herbarium is now part of the National Herbarium of New South Wales (an oxymoronic name, but one which dates back to pre-Federation days). 
The orchid genera Gunnarorchis and Gunnia were named for Gunn, but they
have since respectively been subsumed into Dendrobium (above) and Sarcochilus (below).
He died in 1881, widely respected both for his scientific and social contributions. At least 50 plant species, the majority of them Tasmanian, were named for him. Joseph Hooker (not William, as claimed by Wikipedia) wrote in his introduction to his Flora Tasmaniae: "There are few Tasmanian plants that Mr Gunn has not seen alive, noted their habits in a living state, and collected large suites of specimens with singular tact and judgment. . . . accompanied with notes that display remarkable powers of observation, and a facility for seizing important characters in the physiognomy of plants, such as few experienced botanists possess". At the time it would have been hard to imagine a more significant endorsement.

Baeckea gunniana Family Myrtaceae, Cradle Mountain NP, Tasmania.
This shrub is also found in montane bogs on the mainland but was probably collected originally by Gunn,
and named for him by German botanist Johannes Schauer.


Flabmeister said...

A thoroughly admirable gentleman it would appear.

He shares a name with the founders of a Tasmanian forestry Company. Were the founders of that company (John and Thomas of that ilk) related to him?


Ian Fraser said...

I don't know, but it seems pretty likely, given that he had 15 children (via two wives), and brother William had 9; a modern Gunn in Tas would be hard put to it to avoid being related to him! Not his fault of course...