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Burrell, Henry James (1873–1945)

by G. P. Walsh

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

Henry James Burrell (1873-1945), naturalist, was born on 19 January 1873 at Rushcutters Bay, Sydney, fourth son of Douglas Burrell, architect, and his wife Sarah Rose, née Stacey. After slight schooling he led a wandering, knock-about life which included some years as a comedian on the vaudeville stage. On 28 March 1901 he married a 42-year-old divorcee Susan Emily Naegueli, only child of William and Susan Rebecca Hill of Caermarthen station, Manilla, New South Wales, where he settled as a grazier.

Burrell established a small zoological garden with native fauna and soon became interested in the platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus. Told by zoologists that it could not be kept in captivity, he determined to try, and so began his celebrated study of monotremes—the platypus and the echidna, Tachyglossus spp. Devoting all his spare time to field work on the Namoi, Manilla and Macdonald rivers, he discovered many new facts about the world's most curious mammals, captured some and succeeded in keeping them alive. He devised an ingenious portable artificial habitat called a 'platypusary' which, at the Moore Park Zoological Gardens, enabled him in 1910 to exhibit them for the first time. In 1922 he assisted Ellis Stanley Joseph to exhibit in the United States of America the first live platypus to be seen outside Australia. He was also the first to keep baby platypuses in captivity, organized a recording of their voices, and had a film made depicting the habits of both monotremes.

In 1926 with A. S. Le Souef, Burrell published The Wild Animals of Australasia … (London, 1926), and contributed articles on the monotremes to the Australian Encyclopedia. His most notable work is the authoritative The Platypus, its Discovery, Zoological Position Form and Characteristics, Habits, Life History, etc (Sydney, 1927); the book was all the more remarkable because he could not get official sanction to work as a private collector and, unlike earlier unrestricted observers, was prevented from exploring certain branches of his subject. Professor L. Harrison, who prepared the historical and technical material, withdrew as co-author after a dispute with the publishers. Late in 1927 Burrell was stricken with paralysis while working in the cold waters of the Namoi, but the 'platypoditudinarian' (his own term) made a remarkable recovery. He continued his work but went to Sydney where he and his wife were willing hosts to visiting naturalists.

Burrell published many papers and notes on his speciality in scientific journals. He was a corresponding-member of the Zoological Society of London and of the Australian Museum, a life-member of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, charter-member of the American Society of Mammalogists, fellow of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales and was associated with other local scientific societies. Much of his collecting was carried out for the University of Sydney and the Commonwealth government, but he donated his excellent collection of photographic negatives to the Australian Museum, Sydney, and his unique complete sequence of monotreme exhibits to the Australian Institute of Anatomy, Canberra. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1937.

Burrell's wife Susan, an able naturalist in her own right, helped him in his research and lectured to schools and other groups on monotremes. She was a charter-member of the American Society of Zoologists, and a member of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union and of the Linnean and Royal Zoological societies of New South Wales. An active Red Cross worker in World War I, she was later president of the Excelsior branch and was also a councillor of the National Association of New South Wales. She died on 27 March 1941, and on 2 December next year Burrell married a divorcee Daisy Ellen Brown, daughter of W. J. Mitchell of Bowen Park, Trangie.

Burrell died suddenly of heart disease on 29 July 1945 at his home at Randwick, and was cremated with Anglican rites; he was childless. His estate was valued for probate at £11,184.

With a keen analytical mind, Burrell was a delightful, well-loved companion: breezy, hearty, quick-witted, with a great sense of humour, he was content to be known simply as 'the Platypus Man' or 'Duckbill Dave'. Surfing and writing amusing prose and verse for his friends were his chief recreations.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Museum Magazine, 1 Dec 1945
  • Victorian Naturalist, 62 (1945-46)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1945.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Burrell, Henry James (1873–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burrell-henry-james-5435/text9221, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 July 2017.

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

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