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Etheridge, Robert (1846–1920)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Robert Etheridge (1846-1920), palaeontologist and museum director, was born on 23 May 1846 at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England, only son of Robert Etheridge (1819-1903), palaeontologist to the Geological Survey of England and the British Museum, and his wife Martha, née Smith. He was educated at the Royal School of Mines, South Kensington, under Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall (though he did not take his associateship), and was trained as a palaeontologist by his father.

On 15 March 1866 Etheridge was appointed assistant field geologist to the Geological Survey of Victoria under the direction of Alfred Selwyn at a salary of £250. In 1868 he contributed to Selwyn's A Descriptive Catalogue of the Rock Specimens and Minerals in the National Museum … When the survey was discontinued in 1869 he went gold-mining with his colleague Reginald Murray, before returning to England in 1871. At St Philip's Church, Kensington, London, he married Harriet Emily Ewen on 26 October that year. In 1873, after working as underground manager in a coal-mine in south Wales, he became palaeontologist to the Geological Survey of Scotland, and in 1874 an assistant in the geology department of the British Museum (natural history) under his father and Henry Woodward, who became a lifelong friend.

In 1873-86 Etheridge published over a hundred notes and papers, including many relating to the geology of eastern Australia especially on the fossils of Palaeozoic and Tertiary rocks. He contributed abstracts of literature relating to 'the stratigraphical and descriptive Geology of Australasia' to the Geological Record (1874-78). From 1877 he worked on Queensland fossils sent him by Robert Jack. With Jack he published Catalogue of Works, Papers, Reports, and Maps, on the Geology, Palaeontology, Mineralogy, Mining and Metallurgy, etc. of the Australian Continent and Tasmania (London, 1881), and with P. H. Carpenter, Catalogue of the Blastoidea in the Geological Department of the British Museum (Natural History) (London, 1886).

Persuaded by his old Victorian colleague Charles Wilkinson Etheridge returned to Australia, and on 13 April 1887 became palaeontologist to the Geological Survey of New South Wales and to the Australian Museum, Sydney, working month and month about. In 1887 he led a collecting expedition to Lord Howe Island, and next year explored the caves at the junction of the Murrumbidgee and Goodradigbee rivers. In 1889 he founded a new serial, Records of the Geological Survey and next year, at his suggestion, the Records of the Australian Museum appeared. In the 1890s he served on the councils of the Royal and Linnean societies of New South Wales.

In 1892 he and Jack published their monumental Geology and Palaeontology of Queensland and New Guinea (Brisbane), the basis of all subsequent geological work in Queensland. Etheridge had earlier introduced the term Permo-Carboniferous as a way around difficult problems of late Palaeozoic classification: he and Jack now applied it to the coal measures and associated marine beds of Queensland and New South Wales. By 1895 Etheridge had published a further hundred notes and papers on subjects ranging from Palaeozoic invertebrata to ethnology. As well as his annual progress reports to the Survey, he began a series of official contributions to the palaeontology of South Australia.

On 1 January 1895 Etheridge, who had acted in the position in 1893, was appointed curator of the museum on the retirement of Edward Ramsay. His term was distinguished despite serious quarrels with senior staff—including Charles Anderson, Sutherland Sinclair and Charles Hedley—and his aversion to publicity and to public gatherings. To be fair, Etheridge faced more difficulties than most incumbents; but the museum building was enlarged, the collections renovated, enriched and better displayed; and a fine library was built up, public lectures and demonstrations were resumed and cadetships introduced to train future staff.

Etheridge enlarged his interest in ethnology and published widely on the art, artifacts and customs of the Australian Aboriginals. In 1906 he set up a separate department of ethnology headed by his assistant W. W. Thorpe: he regarded the large collection of ethnological objects from Australia and the Pacific region as his greatest work for the museum. In 1914 Etheridge wrote an Elementary Guide to the Exhibited Zoological Collections and later two papers on the museum's history. Honorary consultant to the Geological Survey from 1895, Etheridge continued to publish widely in his prime field.

Shy, aloof and austere with a sardonic sense of humour, Etheridge had few intimate associates, but to those who won his liking he was a staunch friend. He had no hobbies and few interests outside his work from which he seldom allowed himself any respite, even though in later years he suffered from chronic nephritis. A thorough scientist and conservative by nature, he had little sympathy with speculation and directed his attention mainly to exact observation and the recording of facts: he was author of over 355 publications and co-author of about 60 others. His contribution to Australian stratigraphy was considerable and, according to Sir Edgeworth David, 'the classification and correlation of the coalfields, goldfields, artesian water basins, oilfields, and other mineral deposits of the Commonwealth are based essentially on … [his] work'.

The honours he received were not commensurate with his large output of valuable work: however, he benefited under the Wollaston 'Donation Fund' of the Geological Society, London, in 1877 and received the [W. B.] Clarke memorial medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1895 and the Mueller medal of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in 1911.

Predeceased by his wife, Etheridge died suddenly of pneumonia on 5 January 1920 while on holiday at his son's residence, Inglewood, Colo Vale, New South Wales, and was buried in the Anglican section of Fitzroy cemetery, Mittagong. He was survived by two of his three sons. Numerous species of animals, both fossil and recent, were named in his honour and his name was also given to a river and gold-field in Queensland, a high range on the Kosciusko plateau and a glacier in Antarctica.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Strachan et al (eds), Rare and Curious Specimens (Syd, 1979)
  • Geological Society of London, Quarterly Journal, 60 (1904), lxviii, 76 (1920) lix
  • Victorian Geological Survey, Bulletin, 23 (1910)
  • Geological Magazine (London), 57 (1920), no 5, p 194, 239
  • Royal Society of Victoria, Annual Report, 1919, p 5
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 45 (1920), p 5
  • Nature (London), 26 Feb 1920, p 700
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Journal, 54 (1920), p 28, 76 (1942), p 96
  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 44 (1920), p 379
  • Australian Museum, Records, 15 (1926), p 1
  • T. G. Vallance, ‘Pioneers and leaders …’, Alcheringa, 2 (1978)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 9 Jan 1920
  • H. Deane papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Etheridge letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Etheridge, Robert (1846–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/etheridge-robert-6117/text10489, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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