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Baker, Richard Thomas (1854–1941)

by J. L. Willis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Richard Thomas Baker (1854-1941), botanist and museum curator, was born on 1 December 1854 at Woolwich, Kent, England, son of Richard Thomas Baker, a blacksmith at the naval dockyard, and his wife Sarah, née Colkett. He was educated at Woolwich National School and Peterborough Training Institution and gained science and art certificates from South Kensington Museum. He was engaged by the School Board for London as a senior assistant-master in 1875 but resigned in July 1879 to travel to Australia, arriving in September.

Baker became science and art master and senior house-master in June 1880 at Newington College, Sydney, where he remained for eight years before resigning to visit Europe and the United States of America. On 15 January 1888 he was appointed assistant curator to J. H. Maiden, curator of the Technological Museum, Sydney, and published his first scientific paper (with Maiden) in 1891. In charge of the museum from 1896, he was appointed curator on 5 September 1898, and economic botanist in 1901; he also had charge of branch museums at Goulburn, Bathurst, Newcastle, Albury and West Maitland. On 3 December 1890 at the Wesleyan Church, Ashfield, he had married a widow Ann Hebblewhite, née Dawson.

Although Bosisto and Mueller had recently pioneered the eucalyptus oil industry, phytochemistry as a science was virtually unknown. Into this potentially fertile field Baker plunged with enthusiasm, supported by his colleague H. G. Smith. Generally their work was oriented towards the commercial applications of the various natural products of the flora—such as essential oils, gums and resins; but Baker was an originator and mere compilations of data held little interest for him. From the date of his first major work with Smith, Research on the Eucalypts, Especially in Regard to their Essential Oils (Sydney, 1902), his theories were challenged by many Australian botanists, although his work was often praised overseas.

The corner-stone of Baker's work on the eucalypts, which he elaborated in the second edition of his book in 1920, was his assertion that each species of Eucalyptus was characterized by an oil of comparative chemical constancy, that there was a relationship between the leaf venation and the composition of the oil, and that chemical characteristics should be accorded equal value with morphological characters in the establishment of species. The last statement particularly aroused the ire of more orthodox botanists. Although more efficient methods of investigation have led to a substantial modification of Baker's theories, he and Smith were pioneers of modern chemotaxonomy as a recognized discipline, and their work enabled the eucalyptus oil industry to be established on a firm commercial basis.

Baker was reserved and reticent in family matters but, 'energetic, fiery and domineering', he enjoyed the controversy his theories provoked, even though this led to confrontations with such botanists as Maiden who, ironically, had introduced him to the disputed subject. He wrote to a colleague that 'opposition [to his work] was so great that individuals and deputations waited on me and asked me to give it up or I would wreck my scientific future'. His daughter recalls that at this time he often quoted Carlyle; 'The degree of vision that dwells in a man is a correct measure of the man'. In 1918 he told the governor-general Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson: 'I didn't mind the opposition for I love a fight … I append a copy of one of the letters, — its a gem! I get an immense amount of fun out of it'.

Baker published over 120 scientific papers dealing with Melaleuca, Leptospermum, Prostanthera, Angophora and other essential-oil-bearing genera. In 1908 he issued a small book, Building and Ornamental Stones of New South Wales (which he greatly expanded in 1915). It was followed in 1910 by Research on the Pines of Australia (with Smith), Cabinet Timbers of Australia (1913), and The Australian Flora in Applied Arts (1915) in which he warmly advocated the waratah as Australia's national flower and its use as a motif. He regarded Hardwoods of Australia and their Economics (1919) as his major work and dedicated it to Munro Ferguson. After his retirement from the museum in June 1922, Baker and Smith collaborated in producing Woodfibres of Some Australian Timbers … (1924). All these books were not only scientifically and practically important, but are a lasting tribute to the quality of Australian book production at the time. A talented artist, he illustrated several of his own books as well as numerous scientific papers.

In addition to his scientific research work, Baker built up and redisplayed the museum collections and aimed at making up-to-date information on technology available to the commercial world; he was especially proud of his applied-art collections. In 1913-24 he lectured in forestry at the University of Sydney. Baker was a member of the Linnean Society of New South Wales from 1888 and a councillor in 1897-1922, also a member of the local Royal Society from 1894. Awarded the Mueller Medal by the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in 1921, and the Royal Society's [W. B.] Clarke Medal in 1922, he was a corresponding fellow of the Linnean Society of London, an honorary member of the Pharmaceutical societies of Great Britain and New South Wales and of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy (and Science), Pennsylvania.

In his long retirement Baker retained his 'characteristic keenness and enthusiasm' by corresponding with a wide circle of friends in Australasia and overseas. He collected both old and modern china and in 1938 joined the Royal Australian Historical Society. He died at Cheltenham on 14 July 1941 and was buried with Anglican rites in the Methodist section of Rookwood cemetery. Predeceased by his wife, he was survived by a married daughter. His estate was valued for probate at £7820.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Society of New South Wales, A Century of Scientific Progress (Syd, 1968)
  • Australasian Journal of Pharmacy, 22 (1941)
  • Australian Journal of Science, 4 (1941)
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 67 (1942)
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 76 (1942)
  • Novar papers (National Library of Australia)
  • family papers and letters (Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney).

Citation details

J. L. Willis, 'Baker, Richard Thomas (1854–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/baker-richard-thomas-5108/text8533, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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