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Gardner, Charles Austin (1896–1970)

by Neville G. Marchant

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Charles Austin Gardner (1896-1970), botanist, was born on 6 January 1896 at Gressingham, Lancashire, England, son of George William Gardner, farmer, and his wife Sarah, née Stone. In 1909 the family emigrated to Western Australia where they later selected land at Yorkrakine. Keenly interested in botany, Charles developed a deep love for the Australian bush. About the age of 19 he moved to Perth, worked for the National Bank of Australasia and studied landscape painting under J. W. Linton.

In the Western Australian Museum's library Gardner pored over George Bentham's seven-volumed Flora Australiensis (London, 1863-78). Encouraged by the wildflower painter Emily Pelloe and the government botanist Desmond Herbert, he built up his own herbarium and in 1920 was appointed a collector for the Forests Department. Next year he joined an expedition to the Kimberley which led to his Botanical Notes (1923); subsequent papers described and illustrated the botany of the inland Kimberley region for the first time. In 1924 he became a founding member of the Western Australian Naturalists' Club and on 1 July he transferred to the Department of Agriculture as an assistant to W. M. Carne whom he succeeded as economic botanist and plant pathologist in July 1926. Gardner accepted the dual post of government botanist and curator of the State's herbarium on 1 January 1929.

An unflagging publicist, he gave radio talks, spoke at public meetings and lectured on plant systematics at the University of Western Australia from 1924 to 1962; his lectures were ideal for the student of taxonomy, but deadly dull for others. In 1930 Gardner published his Enumeratio Plantarum Australiae Occidentalis: A Systematic Census of the Plants Occuring in Western Australia, the only inventory available for the next fifty years. He served (1937-39) as Australian botanical liaison officer to the herbarium, Kew Gardens, London. President (1941-42) of the Royal Society of Western Australia, he was awarded its Kelvin medal in 1949. The abbot of the Benedictine monastery at New Norcia assisted him to learn Latin.

Gardner's ambition to publish a comprehensive 'Flora of Western Australia' never succeeded beyond the Gramineae (1952) which dealt with the grasses of the State. His perfectionism and inability to co-operate with other botanists—especially those who possessed university qualifications—provided obstacles to the huge project. A series of papers on native trees portrayed his interest in the eucalypts and in 1956 he joined the veterinarian H. W. Bennetts in publishing The Toxic Plants of Western Australia. Gardner retired as government botanist on 5 July 1960. He was awarded the (W. B.) Clarke medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1961 and appointed M.B.E. in 1965. Suffering from Parkinson's disease, he died on 24 February 1970 at Subiaco and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery with Catholic rites.

Charles Gardner was an individualist who had a vast knowledge of Western Australian flora which was unfortunately not recorded. Most of his information on Latin names, geographical distribution, plant geography and the biology of the western flora died with him. His greatest legacy, apart from his publications, was the wealth of plant specimens, estimated at 9000 to 10,000, which he added to the collections to form the Western Australian Herbarium. He had also been instrumental in convincing the State government to set aside large reserves for conserving flora; one of them, near Tammin, bears his name.

Select Bibliography

  • Journal of Agriculture of Western Australia, 1, no 8, Aug 1960, p 747
  • Victorian Naturalist, 87, June 1970, pp 145, 173
  • Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia, 53, 1970, p 63
  • Western Australian Naturalist, 11, no 7, Aug 1970, p 168
  • Nature Walkabout, 8, no 1, Mar 1972, p 7
  • Western Australian Museum, Your Museum, 2, no 3, Dec 1974
  • West Australian, 6 July 1960, 18 July 1961, 25 Apr 1964, 12 June 1965, 11 Aug 1967, 26 Feb 1970, 2 Dec 1972
  • Countryman (Perth), 13 Apr 1961
  • Daily News (Perth), 25 Feb 1970
  • Department of Agriculture of Western Australia, list of Gardner's publications, 1923-62 (typescript, Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne).

Citation details

Neville G. Marchant, 'Gardner, Charles Austin (1896–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gardner-charles-austin-10275/text18175, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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