Tuesday 12 February 2013

Hermann Beckler

The last post briefly outlined the Burke and Wills Expedition. This one looks the expedition's doctor and botanist, Hermann Beckler, to see why he has inspired the Beckler's Botanical Bounty Project.

This information has come from Linden Gillbank's excellent chapter, "The botanical legacy of Ferdinand Mueller and Hermann Beckler" in Burke and Wills: The scientific legacy of the Victorian Exploring Expedition (ed E. B. Joyce and D. A. McCann)

illust: Herman Beckler

Dr Hermann Beckler left Bavaria and arrived in Moreton Bay, Queensland in 1856. Aged 27, he bought his Munich medical qualifications and a consuming desire to explore Australia's interior and to collect specimens. While in Queensland he corresponded with Ferdinand Mueller, Victoria's first government botanist. 

Beckler was excited by news from Mueller about the possibility of a job collecting plant specimens. So he joined a party droving sheep down through inland New South Wales to meet Mueller in Melbourne. He was given a job to help organise the growing Australian collection in Victoria's herbarium, and he developed his knowledge of Australian plants.

In June 1860 Beckler applied to join the Victorian Exploring Expedition Party. In his application he offered his services 'as medical officer to the expedition' and also offered 'to serve further in the capacity of botanical collector'. After some problems with his Munich medical qualifications Beckler was accepted on the expedition.

As well as being the doctor and botanist, he was also given the responsibility of co-ordinating the transportation of the supplies during the expedition. Given that there were tonnes of supplies, this was an onerous task. But, despite this time- and energy-consuming responsibility, he managed to do as his instructions directed -- keep a diary and collect specimens.

So the expedition journeyed north from Melbourne, through mud and deep red sand, to reach the European outpost of Menindee. But all was not well. Dissension smouldered and then erupted, generating two resignations -- Landells, the camel handler and Beckler. On October 16th Beckler explained to Burke that his main reason for resigning was Burke's treatment of Landells and Landells' resignation, which, given the expedition's complete dependence on camels put the safety of the expedition at risk. Furthermore Beckler told Burke that he had had inadequate time for his scientific duties and could anticipate no future improvement. He had decided to  remain with the expedition until a replacement doctor could be sent from Melbourne.

The Camp at Pamamaroo Creek, as it is today
Despite these resignations, Burke took a smaller party which left Menindee for Cooper Creek on 19th October. The larger group was to follow on. Beckler still had responsibility for the care of the animals and remaining stores.  Horribly familiar with the arduous task of moving heavy stores, he moved the depot camp up the Darling River to the Pamamaroo Camp. While stranded at the depot camp he continued collecting plant specimens. 

As well as collecting around the Menindee area, Beckler took the opportunity to explore north in the Scropes Range. This range rewarded him with many 'new' plants, about two thirds of which were expedition novelties.

Above: Hermann Beckler, ‘View of a distant range of mountains, seen from Gogirga hills’. Picture Collection, H16486. Beckler painted this watercolour scene of Bilpa in the Scropes Range in November 1860. He visited this place during his first botanical excursion. Wills called this spot ‘The Gap’. [watercolour painting]
Hermann Beckler, 'View of a distant range of mountains, seen from Gogirga hills'.
He also had a chance to go even further north to help rescue others of the party. Two members had left with an Aboriginal guide to try to catch Burke's group. About one month later the guide staggered back into camp, having travelled about 300 km from Torowoto Swamp. They had not managed to catch Burke, and the two Europeans were stuck in the area. The rescue party set off on 21st December and found the others six days later. Even though they were moving quickly, and the rescue was the important goal, Beckler was able to collect his plants.

In his treks north of the Darling depot he collected approximately 500 specimens. These were added to the ones he collected around Menindee and sent back to Mueller. His collection is of huge botanical importance because of the expedition's route and timing, and the number and range of his specimens. They enriched Victoria's herbarium during its early stages and were invaluable for Mueller's documentation of Australia's flora. Specimens were used to establish new taxa. The Herbarium website says

These collections are an invaluable, permanent and verifiable record of the occurrence of over 500 different species. As part of a working scientific collection, they are still used by botanists today.

Beckler returned to Melbourne and gave evidence at the Commission of Enquiry that was set up to investigate the expedition. Soon after he returned to Germany where he worked as a doctor. He died on 10th December 1914.

It is Beckler's collection that has excited our interest. Our intention is to find the species that are on his list, collect a sample for the herbarium (with official collecting permission, of course) and then do a botanical painting of the specimen. To do this we have been returning to Menindee in October for the last three years -- and will be going there for a few more yet!

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