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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Helms, Richard (1842–1914)

by A. H. Chisholm

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Richard Helms (1842-1914), by unknown photographer

Richard Helms (1842-1914), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 15766

Richard Helms (1842-1914), zoologist and botanist, was born on 12 December 1842 at Altona, Hanover, Germany, son of Frederick Helms, Lutheran minister, and his wife Caroline. He migrated in 1858 to Melbourne where he worked for a tobacconist. In 1862 he moved to Dunedin where he turned to dentistry and later to watchmaking. Fluctuating between Australia and New Zealand, he extended his extraordinary versatility to zoology. Although self-taught, he became so zealous as a collector that many new species of New Zealand insects and a number of shells were named after him.

In 1888 Helms became a collector for the Australian Museum in Sydney. He worked first in the Snowy Mountains. From Jindabyne in February 1889 he wrote to Edward Ramsay, curator of the museum, that riding, walking and collecting material occupied him virtually from dawn to midnight each day. Later he made excursions to the regions of the Darling and Richmond Rivers. He was reputed to have had 'the wisdom of a savage as to where a bird would nest or a beetle would burrow', but despite his main interest in zoology he discovered new species of plants, some of which were named in his honour by Ferdinand von Mueller.

In 1891 Helms was appointed naturalist to an east-west expedition sponsored by Sir Thomas Elder and led by David Lindsay; the party of 8 white men and 5 Afghans with 44 camels started from Warrina, South Australia, in May and, after great difficulty in arid country, crossed into Western Australia in July and dispersed in the Murchison region early in 1892. Results of the expedition were disappointing, but Helms made important collections of fauna and flora. The discussion of these collections by scientists of the Royal Society of South Australia was published in its Proceedings, 16 (1892-96), together with a paper by Helms on anthropology. In 1896-99 he was biologist to the Department of Agriculture, Western Australia. He wrote papers on his studies of the honey-bee, ticks and other parasites, noxious weeds, plant diseases and exotic birds. He also published informative material on his finds in excursions to the East Kimberley and the Abrolhos Islands.

Helms returned to New South Wales in 1900 and as a bacteriologist in the Department of Mines and Agriculture published many papers in the Agricultural Gazette and other journals. He retired in 1908 and worked on his extensive collections and made further excursions. On a visit to the Solomon Islands he caught a chill and died in Sydney on 17 July 1914, leaving a reputation as one of the most versatile and diligent natural scientists in Australia. He was buried in the non-sectarian section of the Gore Hill cemetery. Survived by two daughters, he was predeceased by his wife Sarah Ann, née Reay, whom he had married at 36 in Greymouth, New Zealand.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Musgrave, Bibliography of Australian Entomology 1775-1930 (Syd, 1932)
  • H. M. Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, 1954)
  • W.B.A[lexander], ‘Obituary: Mr. Richard Helms’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Western Australia, vol 1, 1914-15, pp xxviii-xxix
  • C. Hedley, ‘Presidential Address: Mr. Richard Helms’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 49, 1915, pp 11-14.

Citation details

A. H. Chisholm, 'Helms, Richard (1842–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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