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Blandowski, William (1822–1878)

by L. K. Paszkowski

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

William Blandowski (1822-1878), naturalist, was born on 21 January 1822 in Gliwice (Gleiwitz), Upper Silesia, son of a Prussian lieutenant-colonel of the Medical Corps and his wife, née von Woyrsch. The Blandowski family, well known since 1610 and bearing the coat of arms of 'Wieniawa', was of Polish origin and belonged to the Silesian nobility, but later became germanized, abandoning the Roman Catholic faith for the Lutheran. On 31 August 1834 Blandowski entered the Royal Prussian Cadets at Chelmno (Kulm) but was dismissed or left at his own request on 5 August 1836. Whatever his education he was once described as a mining engineer by profession.

He arrived in Australia in 1849. His 'original object' was to compile 'a natural history, a botanical classification, and a geological arrangement of this country'. He visited Adelaide, and at least Sydney, Twofold Bay and Cape York by ship and later joined an early gold rush in Victoria, making a small fortune in the goldfields near Castlemaine. It was there that Blandowski became noted as an inventor and designer of a powerful water pump.

His name appeared in the Melbourne Argus, 4 October 1852, as a founder of the Geological Society of Victoria. In 1853 he was briefly attached to the field party of the government geologist, Alfred Selwyn. On 21 May Blandowski asked Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe for an 'allowance' to enable him to complete his 'Illustrated Natural History of the Colony of Victoria'. Impressed by further correspondence La Trobe wrote to the colonial secretary on 8 November that immediate steps should be taken to open a museum and stating that Blandowski was the 'most suitable person to employ'. In December 1853, at the invitation of La Trobe, he submitted a detailed 'Memorandum' of six pages on a 'Museum of Practical Geology'. When the Museum of Natural History, on the recommendation of the Legislative Council, was created in Melbourne, Blandowski was the first officer appointed to its staff as government zoologist on 1 April 1854. On 17 June 1854 he was one of the eight men who founded the Philosophical Society of Victoria; he was appointed to its council, served for a short time in 1856 as honorary secretary, and later became a life member.

At the end of 1854 and early in 1855 Blandowski made several excursions to the coastal areas of Victoria and the region of McIvor (Heathcote) and the Black Ranges, collecting numerous specimens and attempting to compile the first check list of the mammals and birds of Victoria. He had considerable knowledge of physical geography and geology, mineralogy, palaeontology, zoology, ichthyology, botany and ethnology. His drawings were not only accurate in detail but also had artistic merit. He described his findings in seven reports, published in the Transactions of the Philosophical Society of Victoria, 1855-57.

Blandowski's life was considerably affected by Professor Frederick McCoy, who in May 1856 was appointed palaeontologist to the Geological Survey of Victoria and who made himself responsible for the transfer of the collections of the National Museum to the University of Melbourne. Blandowski opposed this transfer and antagonism between the two men deepened beyond reconciliation. The Argus, 29 July 1856, defended Blandowski, stressing his zeal and devotion to his work, and stating that 'the museum almost owes its existence to him'.

On 2 December 1856 the government appointed him leader of an expedition to investigate the natural history of the region at the junction of the Darling and Murray Rivers, with a view to collecting specimens for the National Museum. Aided by a German naturalist, Gerard Krefft, and overcoming many personal and physical setbacks often created by his own faults, Blandowski accomplished his task, arriving in Adelaide in August 1857 with twenty-eight boxes containing 17,400 specimens.

After his return to Melbourne he never reported back to duty at the museum. On 2 September 1857 he presented his 'Preliminary Report on Recent Discoveries in Natural History on the Lower Murray' to the Philosophical Society. The council of the society ordered it to be published with the omission of the 'objectionable' pages dealing with nineteen new species of fish named after prominent members of the council (e.g. 'Slimy, slippery fish. Lives in mud'). The council demanded the withdrawal of his 'offensive descriptions' but he refused. A motion asking him to resign failed through the lack of a two-thirds majority. He lost much of his interest in the society but as a member of its Exploration Committee attended meetings till March 1859. Ordered three times by the Victorian government to return his specimens and manuscripts, Blandowski delivered some collections to the university museum on 24 December 1857, but without invoices, lists or memoranda. In 1858 he again clashed with McCoy, and the Melbourne press accused Blandowski of retaining specimens, journals and drawings for his own use. When threatened with legal action he sailed on 17 March 1859 for Java and Hamburg, where he landed in the middle of November. He went to Brunswick and Berlin complaining about the shabby treatment he had received in Australia. Returning to his native Silesia he published some scientific papers relating to Australia in 1860 and 1861 in the Proceedings of the Natural Science Societies of Dresden and Breslau. In 1862 he published a fifty-two page brochure, Australien in 142 Photographischen Abbildungen, in which he claimed that he was in possession of four thousand sketches from Australia. He died on 18 December 1878 in the old psychiatric hospital at Bunzlau (Boleslawiec), Silesia.

Blandowski was an ambitious, eccentric, stubborn, impulsive, quarrelsome individualist, and his scientific integrity was sometimes questioned, but credit should be given to his capacity for hard work and devotion to the founding of national collections. His name has been commemorated in a genus of marine fish (Blandowskius), and of the Murray River perches (Blandowskiella). An important set of his plates, 'Australia Terra Cognita', is held by the Mitchell Library.

Select Bibliography

  • N. A. Wakefield, ‘Mammals of the Blandowski Expedition to North-Western Victoria, 1856-57’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, vol 79, part 2, 1966, pp 371-91
  • L. Paszkowski, ‘William Blandowski: The First Government Zoologist of Victoria’, Australian Zoologist, vol 14, part 2, 1967, pp 147-72
  • Colonial Secretary's letters, 1853-55 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • Governor's letters, 1857-61 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • Krefft papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Gregory letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

L. K. Paszkowski, 'Blandowski, William (1822–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blandowski-william-3014/text4413, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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