Blandowski’s bad name

Almost 150 years ago, Museum Victoria’s first curator William Blandowski led a remarkable expedition to north west Victoria that yielded a unprecedented number of unique specimens but also, quite unfairly, cost Blandowski his reputation.

William Blandowski

Self portrait of Polish naturalist William Blandowski, 1822-c.1876. Portrait taken in 1860 as an albumen silver photograph.
Source: National Gallery of Victoria.

Twenty-five thousand years of environmental continuity were suddenly disrupted when the pastoral industry encroached on the Murray-Darling Basin. Many animals of the area encountered by the first Museum employee, William Blandowski, were soon to disappear.

The stock that was mustered onto this ecological frontier quickly consumed the food and trampled the shelter for many mid-sized marsupials. The Pig-footed Bandicoot, the Eastern Hare Wallaby, the Western Barred Bandicoot and the Bilby were driven into local extinction. Similarly the Lesser Stick-nest Rat, once abundant, has now disappeared entirely. Specimens were collected with the assistance of the Nyeri Nyeri people and are preserved in the museum as markers from an environment that has changed forever.

Blandowski’s party reached the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers in April 1857 and set up camp at Mondellimin (now known as Chaffey’s Landing), just eight kilometres west of the centre of the city of Mildura. The expedition dispatched more than 17,000 specimens to Melbourne and unlike the ill fated Burke and Wills expedition that followed in 1860, all his party returned alive.
Blandowski’s receptiveness to Aboriginal culture has left us with a vivid, but little known record of the daily life along the Murray River at the moment of colonial expansion.

Despite his considerable achievements, Blandowski’s reputation has been tarnished by his confrontation with the emergent scientific establishment on his return to Melbourne. The controversy still overshadows the story of the expedition, even 150 years after the event.

Blandowski had an expansive vision for science in this new continent. Influenced by the theories of the German geographer, Alexander Humboldt, he sought to integrate the disciplines of zoology, botany, geology, geography and ethnography. His nemesis came in the form of Frederick McCoy, the Professor of Natural Science at the University of Melbourne. McCoy was a taxonomist, who understood the world by an examination of its parts. The two men battled for prime position on Melbourne’s scientific stage and for control of the new National Museum.

Blandowski’s grasp of taxonomy became the focus of public scrutiny. He provocatively named a new species after the Reverend Mr Bleasdale which he described as a ‘slimy slippery fish’. He added to this slight by naming another species after the prominent physician Dr Eades, describing it as ‘a fish easily recognised by its low forehead, big belly and sharp spine’. While we cannot be sure if Blandowski meant to insult the Melbourne patriarchs, both men chose indignation over honour. The fact that Blandowski had increased the number of freshwater fish known to science from the Murray Darling River system from three to nineteen was suppressed.

The stand-off became increasingly bitter. With legal proceedings pending, Blandowski took his drawings, photographs and some of the Museum specimens to Europe. There he hoped to restore his reputation and publish his observations of Australia as a lavish encyclopaedia .

Blandowski’s gifted but unfaithful assistant on the expedition, Gerard Krefft, was himself an ambitious scientist. Unable to find secure employment on his return to Melbourne, Krefft followed Blandowski to Europe. Krefft also saw the opportunity to cement his career on the basis of the findings of the expedition. Writing to McCoy from Berlin in 1860 he reported that Blandowski “had dared to lecture before the Geographical Society, displaying his ignorance and making a fool of himself”, while probing the Professor for employment opportunities back at the museum.

Blandowski remained passionate about the material he assembled in ten years exploration in Australia and never gave up on his quest to publish his opus. Following a run-in with the Gliwice authorities, Blandowski was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum in Bunzlau where he remained until his death in 1878, no doubt imagining what should have been.

Much of the original material that Blandowski took to Europe appears to have been lost or destroyed. The ever inventive Blandowski had however photographed the original watercolours to form a prospectus for his encyclopaedia.

Just two copies of the Australien in 142 photographischen have survived, and they hold clues to the scope of Blandowski’s vision. They possess an intensity that belies their small format, secured in almost forgotten albums, shelved in distant libraries.

Comments (7)

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Silesianus 10 April, 2013 13:31
"Self portrait of Polish naturalist William Blandowski." He wasn´t Pole, he was German, Prussian, Silesian !
Jan Stabik 2 November, 2013 00:25
Hey, now museum in Gliwice (Gleiwiz) Silesia is exhibition with fotos (1300) from William Blandowski bye
Kevin Brewer 4 January, 2014 15:32
Before coming to Victoria, Blandowski also did some drafting work for the South Australian Lands Dept. I have seen in that state's archives his drawings of Warreanga and Dunoon, the two SA runs leased by, respectively, Niel Black and his cousin Donald.
Eliza Tree 3 June, 2014 18:52
Who wrote this fabulous Precis? It's great, very clear and concise. But needs a bit more acknowledgement of the Indigenous Peoples. Happy to contribute, as I'm writing about it at the moment. E
Isabel Tickle 25 January, 2016 14:40
Hi Eliza, I am doing research at the moment on early accounts of Aboriginal like in and around the Murray Darling Basin. I was wondering if you had any leads that could help me? Thank you
Karin Neumann Murphy 1 June, 2015 09:14
I would be interested to know how to find and access two items referenced in your article above on Wilhelm (William) Blandowski: 1) Krefft's letter to McCoy from Berlin in 1860. 2) A copy of his book : ' Australien in 142 photographischen' Incidentally that title may be incorrect since it reads: 'Australia in 142 photographic'.
helen mcknight 28 November, 2016 15:05
i wonder how much sour grapes there was with mccoy who didnt like blandowski and who sacked the first taxidermist george fulker who had worked with blandowski when he took over the museum
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