Dr G. Bennett put Australian Animals on the Map

13 October 1955 The Beverley Times (WA)

The Platypus was Not a Joke

Callers at Dr George Bennett's comfortable Sydney home in the1850's were not unduly perturbed when greeted at the door not merely by a footman but by a long-legged cassowary.

They never knew what they would meet at the doctor's. Flying possums, platypuses, Tasmanian devils, lizards, magpies, kangaroos wandered round the Bennet home, sharing his meals and terrorising the neighbors' cats and fowls.

Dr. Bennett was foremost among Sydney's early naturalists.

With Colonial Secretary the Hon. Alexander MacLeay, he ranks as Father of the Australian Museum.

George Bennett was scientific observer in the golden age that saw the opening of the Pacific.

As a young man, he wandered round the East, collecting specimens of land and sea animals for the new-fangled zoo and gardens in London.

When he settled in Sydney he gave the languishing museum a new lease of life.

Specimens living and dead poured in on him.

Great explorers like Sturt and Leichardt sent him rock specimens, from which he was able early to assess the vast mineral resources of Australia.

He told the squatters how to save their sheep from influenza epidemics.

He advised the early settlers on how to grow oranges and bananas.

Finally, be led the clamour of protest that checked the senseless slaughter of many rare birds and animals in Australia. George Bennett was born in Plymouth, England, on January 31, 1804.

As a child he was restless. At 15 he joined a sailing ship to make the perilous voyage to Ceylon where the chiefs of Kandy had just called on the British to oust their Mala-bar tyrant.

The island was still in a state of turmoil. It gave Bennett his first taste for adventure.

He returned to England long enough to qualify as a surgeon, then joined the exploration ship Sophia for a three-year cruise through the Pacific and East Indies.

Britain then knew little of the East.

China and Japan were sealed lands yet to be blasted open to trade.

The Pacific was dotted with uncharted islands full, men thought, of treasure and strange birds and animate which King George IV would like for the new zoo he had just founded in Regent's Park, London.

The islands were occupied by cannibal warriors who to protect themselves from the treachery and diseases of marauding whites, had adopted the salt-water law that all men coming from the sea should be killed and eaten or their bodies thrown back to the sharks.

There was some peril attached to the expedition, therefore, when Sophia sailed East.

Bennett was in charge of all scientific observations. Sophia touched at Sydney in 1839.

Bennett found a rip-roaring town of less than 10,000 where an up-per crust of superior officialdom presided over and quarrelled with a few hard bitten merchant princes like Simeon Lord and a tough population of convicts, adventurers, and sealers.

Through the mask of squalor, however, Bennett saw the golden future that awaited the colony.

From Sydney, Sophia sailed North for the New Hebrides, where Bennett collected many strange creatures, including the first complete specimen of the pearly nautillus which created a stir among British scientists.

More interesting to the man-in-the-street, however, was Elau, a small native girl saved from the cooking pots after an intertribal battle on Erroranga Island.

Bennett decided to take her home to England with the rest of his specimens.

She pined till Bennett caught an Ungke ape in Sumatra.

The small cannibal girl struck up a friendship with the ape They shared their biscuits and chatted in grunts and squeals.

There seemed to be an understanding between the two wild creatures bound for an unknown land.

Elau lived only a few years as one of the sights of London before the climate killed her.

The ape became a foundation member of King George's zoo. As soon as he had presented his reports, Bennett returned to Sydney he noticed a great change in the few years.

Sandstone houses were replacing the crude wooden huts. Attractive residential section was rising at Woolloomooloo.

The population had topped 11,000 and best of all, food as, now abundant.

Bennett noted good beef at 1d. a lb. Choice peaches were 1d. a dozen, while grapes, plums, loquats, apricots, pears, apples, watermelons and strawberries were plentiful.

There was, however, as now, an acute housing shortage. Rents ranged from 60 to 250, a large sum when money was worth ten times its present value.

Bennett recorded that the colonists had an al-most insane affection for talking parrots.

"The ears," he wrote, "are constantly assailed by screeching, babbling and whistling." By then the colonists were bursting into the outback.

The age of exploration had begun. Pastoralists had sent 2,403,337 lb. of wool to England, compared with 175,433 lb. ten years earlier.

Bennett set out to study the new colony as a scientist. He went immediately to Alexander MacLeay, the Colonial Secretary.

He showed Bennett the collection of stuffed wallabies, koalas and kangaroos and the strange birds he and Sturt, the explorer, had captured on the Murrumbidgee.

He took Bennett to the 54 acre botanist's paradise he had established at Elizabeth Bay, taking particular pride in a specially imported specimen of the prickly pear, from which sprang the scourge which is costing Australia millions of pounds today.

Wherever Bennett went, he recorded his experiences.

He wrote, for instance, the curious act that London pickpockets made the best shepherds.

He detected and treated a smallpox-disease among the aborigines.

For seven months he rode the outback in the Yass, Tumut, and Murrumbidgee districts, and recorded the remarkable fact that, "Inns in the Australian colony are neat and elegant, well supplied and the charges are moderate."

He hunted kangaroos and wombats, but his main interest was the platypus. Bennett was the first scientist to describe this weird creature in detail.

Nevertheless, he had some difficulty in persuading British scientists that the platypus really existed.

They had hailed the first skin as a hoax, declaring that some joker had manufactured it of moleskin and duck mandibles.

Bennett returned slowly to England, drifting in turn through Batavia, Singapore and along the China coast.

In 1835 Bennett returned to Sydney to settle.

The city had expanded to ??,000 - many of them undesirable. The lash was still heard in the convicts' quarters.

In such unpromising surroundings George Bennett settled to ply his trade as surgeon and found a small centre of knowledge and culture.

In his spare time he joined the ageing Alexander MacLeay in the development of the museum.

The museum had lang. uished since Darling first gave it house room in the Judge Advocate's offices.

It was now in the Legislative Council Chambers. Bennett gave it new life.

He practically took over the administration, as is testified by the fact that in the first few years he is described in official documents as director, superintendent, zoologist, curator and secretary.

He created such an interest that dead and living animals and birds and specimens of rock and fossils were soon pouring in from squatters and drovers pressing inland to open the vast continent.

The animals went first into his own house.

Aboriginal hunters killed or captured 15 platypuses for him.

Two young ones thrived in his Sydney home, frolicking round his living room "like playful kittens" and allowing him to stroke them.

Henry Clarke sent him a flying possum from the Moruya River. It did not stay long in the house. "I found it savage and vicious," said the doctor.

Living specimens of the little dodo, Eyton's tree duck, and the Tasmanian devil came to the house to be passed in due course to the growing zoological gardens that attracted Britons in their thousands to Regent's Park, London.

It was only natural, therefore that when Captain Delvin of the cutter Oberon found a strange emu-like bird in Rabaul ??????

The bird was a new type of of cassowary, main1y found in New Britain and completely unknown to a science.

The doctor arranged to get two more specimens and sent the original to London where It was named in his honor Casuriaus Bennetti.

The other two, he gave the run of his house.

With jabiru, or long-legged crane, they wandered round; answering the door with servants and looking over the doctor's shoulders as he studied.

They swallowed anything that lay about - bolts, pens, nails, stones, iron, eggs; and butter.

One of them swallowed a carpenter's oil stone, another a muslin cuff being starched by a servant.

The influence of the doctor grew.

The ill-fated explorer Ludwig Leichardt discussed his trips with Bennett and sent him rock fossil and botanical specimens gathered wherever he wandered.

Other adventurers sent specimens of minerals, that before many years had passed Dr. Bennett was able to assess the enormous wealth waiting for exploitation in Australia.

"Further researches will reveal the existence of stores of minerals of which we have no suspicion." he wrote. Still he worked in a fever of curiosity.

To study the habits and formation of sharks, he cut some up. In one he found "Half a ham, several legs of mutton, the hind quarters of a pig, the head and forelegs of a bulldog with a rope round its neck, quantity of horse flesh, piece-of sack, and a ship's scraper."

He studied and exploded the myth of the albatross. Instead of being afraid of it, he said, seamen stew and eat it.

"They make tippets, and vanes of the feathered skins, tobacco pouches of the feet, and pipes of the pinion bones."

Hardly a phase of Australia's development escaped the doctor.

He was appointed by the Government to investigate an epidemic of catarrh and influenza decimating the colony's sheep. His report led to effective precautions.

He wrote pamphlets that helped new settlers in the cultivation of orange and banana plantations in New South Wales.

For the benefit of science he recorded the various methods adopted by New Zealand savages in preserving human heads.

He helped with the acclimatisation of new trees and birds, and led the cry of protest at the senseless slaughter of birds and animals - which forced the Government to act.

George Bennett helped to found the Sydney School of Arts, where colonists lectured on agriculture, cookery, domestic economy, geology, architecture, and chemistry.

As he grew older, honors came to him.

The London zoological Society made him a Fellow and awarded him their silver medal.

The Imperial Austrian Zoological society gave him their diploma.

In medicine, he was consulting physician at Vincent's Hospital and examiner at Sydney University.

The Royal College of surgeons awarded him their gold medal.

As valuable to him was the Clarke Memorial Medal when the Royal Society of New South Wales awarded him in acknowledgement of his life's work for geology, minerology, and natural history.

George Bennett died in Sydney on September 29 1893.

He had spent a life-time helping to build up the cultural knowledge at a vibrant new race.

He had the satisfaction of realising his dream of a thriving Australian museum.

It is his lasting monument.