John Gilbert (naturalist)

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John Gilbert (1812? – 28 June 1845) was an English naturalist and explorer. He collected animal specimens for English naturalist John Gould. Australia's rarest animal, Gilbert's Potoroo, Potorous gilberti, and the Gilbert-Einasleigh River were named after him.

Early life[change | change source]

Gilbert was born on 14 March, but the exact year is not known. It must have been between 1810 and 1815 and so most books use 1812. Gilbert was a taxidermist for the Zoological Society of London. He met English naturalist John Gould and went to Australia in 1838 with Gould. Gould paid him £100 a year to collect and preserve animals and birds for him

Australia[change | change source]

Gould and Gilbert arrived in Hobart on the ship Parsee on 19 September 1838. They were going to collect animal and bird specimens for Gould's books. Both worked in Tasmania for a few months. On 4 February 1839, Gilbert went to the Swan River settlement. He worked there for a year, mainly around Perth, collecting for Gould. Gilbert then sailed for Sydney, and in June 1840 took a ship to Port Essington in the north of Australia. In March 1841 he sailed to Singapore, stopping at Timor on the way. From there he sailed for London and arrived at the end of September. He had collected a very large number of birds for Gould, and made many notes on their habits.

In February 1842 Gilbert returned Australia to collect further specimens. He reached Perth in July and stayed for 17 months in Western Australia. He made his most interesting discoveries among the Wongan Hills, about 100 miles north-east of Perth. He was a fine naturalist and his notes on birds, their habits, diet, song and the names given them by the aborigines were all of great interest and value. Gilbert collected specimens of 432 birds, including 36 species new to Western Australia. He collected 318 mammals, including 22 species not previously known in the west. By the end of January 1844 he was back in Sydney and during the next six months worked his way to the Darling Downs in Queensland.

Explorer[change | change source]

Gilbert joined Ludwig Leichhardt's expedition in September 1844 which was going to cross Australia's north, from Brisbane to Port Essington. Gilbert, with his experience in the Australian bush, was unofficially the second in charge. The journey was much slower than planned and food supplies were getting low. On 28 June 1845, near the Gulf of Carpentaria, Gilbert was killed when aborigines attacked the explorers. He was buried at the site, but the grave has never been found. The rest of the group reached Port Essington in December 1845.

Leichhardt kept Gilbert's papers and his diary, which, however, was lost for nearly 100 years before its discovery by A. H. Chisholm. Chisholm's research showed Gilbert as a man of much ability and fine character who somewhat ironically had a great respect for the aboriginals. There is a memorial to him in St James church, Sydney with the Latin phrase "Dulce et decorum est pro scientia mori" - "it is sweet and fitting to die for science."

References[change | change source]

Other websites[change | change source]