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Bennett, George (1804–1893)

by A. H. Chisholm

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

George Bennett (1804-1893), by unknown artist, 1840s

George Bennett (1804-1893), by unknown artist, 1840s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9455386

George Bennett (1804-1893), medical practitioner and naturalist, was born on 31 January 1804 at Plymouth, England. He was strongly attracted by the sea, and at 15 undertook the first of his many voyages. Returning to England in 1821, he studied first at Plymouth and then at the Middlesex Hospital and the Hunterian School of Medicine, where he came under the influence of such notable men as Charles Bell, Herbert Mayo and Caesar Hawkins. On 7 March 1828 he obtained his diploma of membership of the Royal College of Surgeons, and meanwhile had made the acquaintance of Richard Owen, then a lecturer in comparative anatomy in the medical school attached to St Bartholomew's Hospital. Owen was the chief British comparative anatomist of his period, and his influence, particularly in respect of palaeontology, was felt by Bennett during the whole of his career in Australia.

Wanderings by Bennett from 1828 to 1835 embraced a wide area of the Pacific, and when he returned to England from one voyage in 1831, he brought with him a large collection of plants, as well as a live Ungka ape from Singapore and a young native girl named Elau from the New Hebrides; the girl, who had been rescued when about to be sacrificed by a hostile tribe, died at Plymouth in 1834. Numerous papers on natural history were written by Bennett as a result of his journeys; they included, in particular, discussions of plants, a description of the living animal of the pearly nautilus, and remarks on certain elements in the fauna of Australia, and these writings were responsible for his election as a fellow of the Linnean Society of London and a corresponding member of the Zoological Society.

Bennett had first visited Australia in 1829. He did so again in 1832, arriving in spring and becoming immediately impressed by 'the beauties of the Kingdom of Flora which are lavished so profusely in this colony'. Travels inland followed, and so keen was his work, notably on the platypus, then not definitely proved to be oviparous, that he was able to send Owen many specimens of extant fauna and a considerable number of fossils. He then published Wanderings in New South Wales … Being the Journal of a Naturalist, vols 1-2 (London, 1834), a work of merit for its good writing and generally sound observation; his only serious slip was in regard to the nesting habits of the lyrebird, upon which he was apparently misled by Aboriginals.

Back in England, Bennett received a signal honour by being awarded the honorary gold medal of the Royal College of Surgeons in recognition of his contributions to zoological science. He returned again to Australia in 1836, and this time he remained, developing a successful medical practice in Sydney and becoming a leading figure in the newly established Australian Museum, the Acclimatization Society and the Zoological Society; his association with the museum, of which he was the first secretary, extended over many years, and in old documents of the institution he is referred to, variously, as 'Director', 'Superintendent' and 'Zoologist'. Meanwhile he assisted visiting zoologists, acted as agent for the birdman, John Gould, maintained a steady correspondence with Owen and others, and assembled material for a second book; this work, broad in scope and informative, was published in 1860 under the title Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia. In 1890, at the age of 86, he was awarded the Clarke memorial medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales.

Bennett died in Sydney on 29 September 1893, leaving an impressive record, emphasized by the numbers of plants and animals that bear his name, as 'the greatest of the physician-naturalists of Australia'. He had married three times. By the first marriage there were two sons and three daughters, by the second a son, and by the third, to Sarah Adcock, two children who died in infancy. A large library which he left was unfortunately rejected by the University of Sydney when offered for £2000, and was sold by public auction.

Select Bibliography

  • V. M. Coppleson, ‘The Life and Times of Dr. George Bennett’, Medical Journal of Australia, 20 Aug 1955, pp 273-78.

Citation details

A. H. Chisholm, 'Bennett, George (1804–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bennett-george-1770/text1981, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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