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Biographical entry Bennett, George (1804 - 1893)

MRCS March 7th 1828; FRCS by election Aug 9th 1859; MD Glasgow 1859.

31 January 1804
29 September 1893
Sydney, Australia
General surgeon


Born at Plymouth on Jan 31st, 1804. While still a boy he visited Ceylon in 1819, returning to England by way of Mauritius, where he stayed for six months. Entering on the study of medicine in his native town, he went afterwards to London and entered the Middlesex Hospital and the Windmill Street School, where his masters were Charles Bell, Herbert Mayo, and Caesar Hawkins. After qualifying he went on a voyage to New Zealand, and there studied coniferous trees including the Thuja pine, the Kawaka of the Maoris. (See Lond. Jour. of Botany, 1842, i, 570.) He also described the ‘moki’, or method of preparing heads, of the New Zealanders. His greatest discovery, however, during this early voyage was the Pearly Nautilus in its living state. It was found on Aug 24th, 1829, floating in Marakini, or Dillon’s Bay, Island of Erromango in the New Hebrides group. (See Bennett’s Gatherings of a Naturalist.) He sent this unique specimen to his friend Richard Owen, at that time assistant to William Clift at the Royal College of Surgeons’ Museum, and thus enabled Owen to write his brilliant description of it which was published in 1832. During this early expedition he visited and described several islands in the New Hebrides group. The child Elau, a native of Erromango, was brought home by the expedition in 1831, and was the first of her race to appear in England. She died at Plymouth in 1834. Other islands visited by him were the Philippines and the Caroline Group, Tahiti and the Sandwich Islands. He published in the Asiatic Journal an account of the Polynesian dialects and of the practice of medicine among the New Zealanders and other Polynesians.

He revisited New South Wales in 1832 to study the natural history of the Colony, especially the habits and anatomy of the Ornithorhyncus. Many descriptions of the animal occur in some thirty letters which he wrote to Owen. They are preserved in the College (Owen Collection). In one letter he tells of two specimens brought by him to Sydney from the interior, whence they were with difficulty conveyed some two hundred miles on horseback. One has died, but the other is running about the room as he writes. These familiar letters are most interesting as showing the manner in which Owen obtained his specimens. The letters date from 1833 to 1840, and some are written from ship-board in the Indian Ocean when he was using the drag-net.

Bennett visited Java, Sumatra, Singapore, and China after leaving Australia, and embodied his observations in his well-known work, The Wanderings of a Naturalist in New South Wales, Batavia, Pedir Coast, Singapore and China, published in two volumes by Bentley in 1834. In this and in his Gatherings of a Naturalist is much for which we look in vain in the letters to Owen. Bennett sent numbers of specimens to the College in 1833 (see “Minutes of the Board of Curators”). His donations amounted to some five hundred.

In the year 1834 the Royal College of Surgeons awarded him the Honorary Gold Medal for his discovery of the Pearly Nautilus and for preparations illustrating the developmental history of the Kangaroo and Ornithorhyncus. In 1832 he was elected a Corresponding Member of the Zoological Society of London, and was the first to present to the Society’s collections a living specimen of the Mooruk or Morrup (Casuarius Bennettii or Bennett’s Cassowary), from New Britain, in 1857-1858, and specimens of the Kagu (Rhinochetus jubatus) from New Caledonia (1862-1863), the Tooth-billed Pigeon, or Little Dodo (Didunculus strigirostris) (1864), Eyton’s Tree Duck (Dendrocygna Eytoni) (1867), the New Caledonia Rail, the Wood Hen Rail from Lord Howe’s Island, and the Yellow Bellied Phalanger. He also presented specimens of the Ursine Dasyure or Tasmanian Devil, and the Australian Bustard (1859-1867). The Zoological Society awarded him its Silver Medal on May 7th, 1862.

Bennett settled in New South Wales after 1834, and began to practise in Sydney in 1836 in order to add to the income (£100 per annum) derived from the Secretaryship of the Australian Museum Committee, to which he was appointed by the Secretary of State for the Colonies on the advice of the President of the Royal College of Surgeons and other College authorities. He continued constantly on the alert for fresh discoveries in natural science, and his liberality and energy in procuring new objects in order to make them known to the world, were frequently and widely recognized.

In 1835, soon after reaching Sydney, he was appointed by Government to report upon the epidemic catarrh of sheep, which was very prevalent in the Colony and which threatened its wealth and resources. He pronounced it to be influenza. His findings, to which he refers in a letter to Owen, were published by Government after careful investigation.

His connection with the Australian Museum was a long one. He was its first Secretary. In January, 1836, he writes to Owen to say that it is “arranged, classified and contains about 320 specimens”. He published a catalogue in 1837, and resigned in 1841, but, when this famous institution was incorporated in 1853, he was appointed a trustee and remained so for more than twenty years. He was active in establishing the Sydney School of Arts (1838-1850), and worked hard both as a Lecturer on Zoology and on the Committee, being Vice-President for many years.

He allowed himself a respite from his many labours in 1859, and made a long European tour. When in London he published his best-known book Gatherings of a Naturalist (1860). It is a store-house of facts as to the natural and general history of Australia. He was appointed an Associate and a Member of the Committee of the Biological Section of the British Association (Aberdeen) in 1859, and held the same positions at the Oxford (1860) and Plymouth (1877) Meetings. He was elected a Member of the Board of Examiners in the Faculty of Medicine in the University of Sydney in 1856, and three years later Professor Harvey dedicated to him Volume II of his Phytologia Australica. In 1860 he was appointed a Member of the Imperial Australian Zoological and Botanical Society. An Acclimatization Society having been formed in Sydney in 1861, he delivered a lecture on “Acclimatization and its Adaptation to Australia”, which was afterwards published by the Melbourne Acclimatization Society and largely distributed in Sydney. He was Hon Secretary of the Sydney Acclimatization Society from 1863-1871. At the end of his tenure of office a long correspondence was carried on with the Government of India on the subject of the cultivation of silk, and that portion of it which related to New South Wales was published by the Government (1870). Bennett also corresponded with Japan on the same subject, and was sent full information and a collection of choice eggs to found an Australian silk-worm industry. He became a member by election of the Imperial Society of Cherbourg in 1864 and a corresponding member of the Royal Society of Tasmania. In 1871 he began a search for fossil mammalia and reptilia and discovered many important new specimens in the Queensland drifts. Professor Owen published his letter on his journey and his mode of search in the Annals of Natural History 1872 (4th Ser., ix, 314-21). Bennett was awarded the Silver Medal of the Acclimatization Society of Victoria in 1873 in recognition of his services in their cause, and in 1874 he was appointed Hon Consulting Physician to St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney.

He took a trip to Europe in 1877, travelling via North America, and returned in 1879 via Bombay and Ceylon. During this visit he was elected Corresponding Member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool, Hon Member of the Geographical Society of Rome, Fellow of the Royal Colonial Institute, and Hon Corresponding Secretary. He acted as Executive Commissioner representing the Ceylon Government at the Sydney International Exhibition (1879-1880), and in 1882 was elected President of the New South Wales Zoological Society. In 1888 he was elected President of the Natural History Association, and was re-elected in 1891, when the Society was re-named the Field Naturalists’ Society of New South Wales. In this year he presented a stained glass window to the Medical School of Sydney University. The Clarke Memorial Medal of the Royal Society (NSW), awarded “for Meritorious Contributions to the Geology, Mineralogy, or Natural History of Australia to men of science, whether resident in Australia or elsewhere”, was bestowed upon him in December, 1890, and the same year he bequeathed scientific works to the value of over £2000 to the Library of Sydney University. The gift included the valuable works of John Gould, with whom he had been much associated, and whom, with many other leading naturalists, such as Cumming, he often mentions in his letters.

For the last ten years of his life Bennett took little active part in the work of his profession, though he continued to act as Co-examiner in Materia Medica and Therapeutics at the University, subjects in which he had always been greatly interested. His mental faculties remained remarkably clear to the close of his long life, and he died, full of honours – in fact, the Patriarch of Colonial Science – on Sept 29th, 1893, at his residence, 167 William Street, Sydney. He was then within four months of being a nonogenarian. He was buried in the Monumental Division of the Church of England Cemetery at the Rookwood Necropolis, Sydney, where his widow erected a handsome memorial. There is a fine photograph of George Bennett in the Council Album, which is reproduced in the Australasian Medical Gazette. There is an early photograph of him by Maull and Polyblank in the College Collection.

Bennett’s name is remembered by Zoologists and others at every turn. “Bennett’s Wallaby” (Dendrolagus Bennettianus) is the Queensland Tree Kangaroo which he was the first to discover. It is figured in the Cambridge Natural History. Birds named after him are the Casuarius Bennettii, or Moruk of New Britain and the Ægotholes Bennettii (Bennett’s Cross Toad, Castlereagh River), and Diporophoron Bennettii, a lizard, discovered by Sir George Gray in North-West Australia. The following have also been named after him by various naturalists, etc: –

Phanerogams – Eupomatia Bennettii, Queensland; Flindersia Bennettiana, Queensland; Mucuna Bennettii, New Guinea; Ficus Bennettii, South Sea Island; Antiaris Bennettii, Tucopia, Fiji.
Cryptogams – Claudea Bennettiana, Spectacle Island.
Insecta – Eupholus Bennettii, New Guinea.
Mollusca – Helix Bennettii, Ipswich, Queensland; Goniodorus Bennettii, Angas, Port Jackson.
Finally, Richard Owen commemorated his friend by naming two paleontological specimens after him – Diprotodon Bennettii, from Mandoona, NSW, and Chlamydosaurus Bennettii, from Gowrie Station, Darling Downs.

Bennett wrote voluminously, and to reconstruct his bibliography, even approximately, is no easy matter. The following are indications only:–
Papers, descriptive of his first expedition to the South Seas, in the Asiatic Jour., United Service Jour., Med. and Phys. Jour., Med. Gaz., Loudoun’s Mag. Nat. Hist., and other scientific journals.
Observations on the Coniferous Trees of New Zealand in Lambert’s Description of the Genus Pinus, Feb 6th, 1832.
“The Mode of preparing Heads among the New Zealanders.” – Roy. Inst. Jour., 1831, June.
Papers in the Mirror, 1831, edit. Timbs, including the first published account,
with engraving, of the monument of La Pérouse, at Botany, Sydney.
Papers on several of the Polynesian Islands, viz., Rotuma, Tongatalu, and some of the New Hebrides, in United Service Jour., 1831.
Papers on the Islands of Erromango and Tanna, New Hebrides, Asiatic Jour., 1831-2.
An Account of Elau, a Malayan Papuan Child, Native of the Island of Erromango, one of the New Hebrides Group, Southern Pacific Ocean, 8vo, with photograph, privately printed, Sydney, n.d.
Papers on Manilla and on the Pulowat Islands, and on the Polynesian Dialects, Asiatic Jour., 1831.
A number of papers, including “Notes on the Karaka Tree and on the Tutu or Wine-Berry Tree, the Puredi, and other New Zealand plants”, with engravings by Vizetelley, Lond. Med. Gaz., 1831-2, ix and x.
Extracts from “A Journal of Natural History”, from England to New South Wales, Batavia, Sumatra, Singapore, etc., and notes on the Practice of Medicine among the New Zealanders and others of the Polynesians.
Papers on the Kava, and on other plants, and on the intermittent fever of Erromango in Med. Phys. Jour. 1832.
Notes on the Island of Tahiti, 1831.
Notes on the Sandwich Islands, 1831.
“Botany of Tahiti.” – Loudoun’s Mag. Nat. Hist., 1832, v.
“Notices on the Native Plants of the Island of Rotuna.” – Ibid.
“An Account of the Ungka Ape of Sumatra.” – Ibid. 1832, v, 131.
“An Account of the Sandalwood Tree, and Observations on some Plants of the Sandwich Islands.” – Ibid.
The Wanderings of a Naturalist in New South Wales, Batavia, Pedir Coast, Singapore and China, 2 vols., 8vo, London, 1834.
“Notes on the Natural History and Habits of the Ornithorhynchus Paradoxus.” –
Proc. Zool. Soc., 1834, Part 2, 191; and Trans. Zool. Soc., 1835, i, 229.
Report on the Epidemic Catarrh affecting Sheep, NSW Govt. publication, 1835.
Catalogue of the Australian Museum, 1837.
Papers on various subjects, Lit. News, 1837.
Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia, 8vo, 8 col. plates, London, 1860. Acclimatization: its eminent Adaptation to Australia: a Lecture, 8vo, Melbourne, 1862.
Selected portions of “Correspondence relating to the Cultivation of Silk in New South Wales”, published by Govt., Sydney, 1870.
Series of illustrated articles on the results of an expedition to Queensland in search of fossil mammalia, etc., Sydney Mail, 1872; published as a Trip to Queensland in search of Fossils.
“Notes on a Visit to Melbourne, Tasmania, and South Australia.” – Leisure Hour, 1879.
Papers in the N.S.W. Med. Gaz., Australasian Med. Gaz., Zoological Proc. and Trans., Jour, of Botany, Gardener’s Chron., Sci. Gossip, Lancet, etc.
Among the College Archives is the “General Account of Specimens of Comp. Anatomy and Natural History collected and presented to the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons by George Bennett”, MS. dated May 17th, 1834.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dr. Bennett’s partner published a short biography of him, which was privately circulated in 1894. The Library possesses Mr. Trimmer’s copy, sent him by Mrs. George Bennett. Bennett’s life has yet to be written on an adequate scale. That his biography is not in Dict. Nat. Biog. is not easily accounted for, as, at the time of his death, he was the Nestor of Australian naturalists and Australia is one of the most interesting regions in the world from the zoological standpoint. It is curious that we find no mention of Bennett by the young Darwin, who gave vivid impressions of Sydney and Australia during the voyage of the Beagle in 1834. Bennett was associated with many leading naturalists, and apparently at one period with Sir George Grey, whom the natives wounded with a spear during an exploring expedition (1836), the episode being vaguely referred to by Bennett in a letter to Owen. Interesting letters by Bennett and Grey are among the “Owen Papers” in the Library].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England