Amalie Dietrich – German Naturalist in Australia 1863-1872

Amalie Dietrich, copy from photo-mechanical print, State Library of New South Wales, Government Printing Office 1 – 12257

For ten years, between 1863 and 1872, Amalie Dietrich collected natural history specimens alone in the jungles and deserts of Queensland. Shaded by a straw hat, she walked thousands of kilometres with her small case of essentials including flour, salt, tea and matches.[1]

Born in the little Saxon town of Siebenlehn in 1821 she had no formal teaching in botany but through her husband, Wilhelm Dietrich learnt everything she could about the subject.

Between 1845 and 1862 she and her husband made a precarious living collecting Alpine specimens to sell to chemists for medicines and to museums for their natural history collections. [2] Some of the delicate alpine flowers Amalie collected in this period can be seen on display in the Natural History Museum in Freiburg. [3] There is no doubt that this was a hard way to make a living and in her biography, ‘The Hard Road,’ her daughter describes this period of Amalie’s life,

The cart was so heavy and the road often so bad, we had to endure hunger, frost, heat, and ceaseless crushing anxiety as to our daily bread, and you [Charitas their daughter]. Often still in my dreams, I pull the cart … [4]

After a while, it appears Wilhelm began spending most of his time mounting the specimens and the burden of collecting them fell to Amalie. This meant long, lonely, periods away from home which were made even worse after her only child, Charitas, was born. Her husband refused to look after his daughter and she was boarded out to strangers, and eventually, at age 11, left her to fend for herself. The final straw was when Amalie found out he was having an affair and she broke with him completely. [5]

In desperation, she travelled to Hamburg where she found work with the industrialist and natural history collector Johan Ceasar Godeffroy. He agreed to hire her as a collector in Australia but there was a downside. Amalie had to sign a ten-year contract and leave her daughter behind in Germany. For Amalie the pain was eased considerably by her friend, a collector named Dr Meyer, and his wife, who agreed to look after Charitas as well as provide for her education. [6]

Amalie left Hamburg on 15 May 1863 and her daughter’s account, though fictionalised, goes some way to describing her mother’s feelings upon finding herself alone on the other side of the world,

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this initial journey. In my heart I longed for guidance of a friendly loving hand on those first days, and would fain have had someone to instruct me about all the strange phenomenon.  … Alas, and now I had to keep on asking myself, is it really I, this lonely wanderer in the Australian forest. [7]

But Amalie grew to love working in a place where so much was new for the natural history collector, and according to Charitas she reconciled her longing for home by picturing herself on the day she would see her daughter again at the docks in Hamburg. [8]  The hardships she had experienced through her life also appear to have led her to focus on practical, rather than emotional matters,

I need courage, cheerfulness, and peace of mind for my work. With a heavy oppressed heart, no work is easily done-by either either of us. My own experience has taught me this: our moods and feelings change from day to day. [9]

Amalie was known to many collectors through her earlier work, but the cases and barrels containing stuffed animals, insects, mammals and plants which arrived at the Hamburg docks from Queensland increased her reputation. Over these ten years she collected in Brisbane (1863–1864); Gladstone (1864-1865); Rockhampton (1864-1866); Mackay (1867); Lake Elphinstone (1868); Mackay (1869); and Bowen (1869-1870). [10] Disturbingly Bowen is also where she also began collecting skeletal remains of local Aborigines to send back to Godeffroy’s in Germany. [11]

Amalie arrived back in Hamburg, 4 March 1873. Her daughter met her at the docks and described the moment in heartbreaking detail,

There at the end of the little cabin, sat an old woman. Her back was rounded. Her parchment-like, weather beaten face was furrowed with thousands of lines and wrinkles. Her hair, parted down the centre, was thin and white. A shabby skirt and a dark print jacket encased the ageing form. On her feet were old grey canvas shoes, displaying holes in sundry places. [12]

This may have been how she appeared to her daughter but it was not how she was regarded by the scientific community. Among this group, her reputation as a natural history collector ensured there were benefactors to help her through the next phase of her life. Primary among these was Johan Godeffroy who provided her with work in his museum and a room in his house for the next 13 years. [13]

Finally in 1891, while on a visit to her daughter’s home, Amalie fell ill with pneumonia and died. [14]

Her legacy continued to grow as more scientists worked on the 20,000 specimens she had collected for the Godeffroy Museum in Germany. And the many more sold to Kew Gardens, the British Museum and other collecting institutions. The size and significance of these collections now rank her as one of the most important naturalist-collectors to have worked in Australia.[15]

Author
Geoff Barker, 2017

Endnotes

  1. All the quotes from the letters in Bischoff’s biography of her mother are now thought to be largely fabricated. That being said we cannot exclude the possibility that they are based to some degree in fact. It is possible they could be based on lost letters or oral accounts she may have heard from her mother.The Hard Road, Charitas Bischoff, Martin Hopkinson Ltd, London, 1931, 234
  2. Amalie Dietrich 1821-1891, Studies in International Cultural relations, Number 29, Instiut fur Auslandsbeziehungen, Suttgart, SBUndersrepublik, Dueutschland, 1988, p.13
  3. Amalie Dietrich 1821-1891, Studies in International Cultural relations, Number 29, Instiut fur Auslandsbeziehungen, Suttgart, SBUndersrepublik, Dueutschland, 1988, p.13
  4. The Hard Road, Charitas Bischoff, Martin Hopkinson Ltd, London, 1931, 244
  5. The White Falcon, Pacific Books, 1963, p.52
  6. The White Falcon, Pacific Books, 1963, p.4
  7. The Hard Road, Charitas Bischoff, Martin Hopkinson Ltd, London, 1931, 237
  8. The Hard Road, Charitas Bischoff, Martin Hopkinson Ltd, London, 1931, 234
  9. The Hard Road, Charitas Bischoff, Martin Hopkinson Ltd, London, 1931, 241
  10. Dietrich, Konkordia Amalie (nee Nelle), Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria, https://www.anbg.gov.au/biography/dietrich-amalie.html
  11. The White Falcon, Pacific Books, 1963, p.63
  12. The White Falcon, Pacific Books, 1963, p.329
  13. The Hard Road, Charitas Bischoff, Martin Hopkinson Ltd, London, 1931, 316
  14. The Hard Road, Charitas Bischoff, Martin Hopkinson Ltd, London, 1931, 329
  15. Amalie Dietrich 1821-1891, Studies in International Cultural relations, Number 29, Instiut fur Auslandsbeziehungen, Suttgart, Bundersrepublik, Dueutschland, 1988, p.30
  16. Dietrich, Konkordia Amalie (nee Nelle), Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria, https://www.anbg.gov.au/biography/dietrich-amalie.html

Further Reading

  • Dietrich, Lodewyckx, & Lodewyckx, A. (1943). Australische Briefe / von Amalie Dietrich ; with a biographical sketch, exercises and a vocabulary, edited by Augustin Lodewyckx. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press in association with Oxford University Press. 
  • Bischoff, C. (1914). Amalie Dietrich, ein Leben / erzählt von Charitas Bischoff. (Grote’sche Sammlung von Werken zeitgenössischer Schriftsteller ; Bd. 97). Berlin: Grote.
  • Lüttge, U., & Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen. (1988). Amalie Dietrich (1821-1891), German biologist in Australia, homage to Australia’s Bicentenary, 1988 / edited by Ulrich Lüttge. (Studies in international cultural relations ; v. 29). Stuttgart: Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen.
  • Sumner, R. (1993). A woman in the wilderness : The story of Amalie Dietrich in Australia / Ray Sumner. Kensington, NSW, Australia: New South Wales University Press.
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