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King, Georgina (1845–1932)

by Ursula Bygott and Claire Hooker

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Georgina King (1845-1932), amateur geologist and anthropologist, was born on 6 June 1845 at Fremantle, Western Australia, second daughter of Rev. George King, a Church of England clergyman from Ireland, and his wife Jane, née Mathewson. Georgina's brother was (Sir) Kelso King. In 1847 the family moved to Sydney. Largely taught by her father, a fellow of St Paul's College within the university, she read new works on evolution and natural history; her interest in geology was encouraged by the family physician George Bennett, a naturalist. In the 1870s Georgina looked after a nephew and niece at Springwood until 1881 when she visited Britain and Europe. She numbered Rose Scott among her closest friends; both were early members of the Women's Literary Society, founded in 1889, and Georgina was an original member of the Women's Club.

In 1888 she had attended the inaugural meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science and there met and entertained distinguished scientists. She later corresponded with R. L. Jack in Queensland and (Sir) Frederick McCoy in Victoria, whose outdated beliefs about geology agreed with what she had read and remembered from her youth. This support emboldened her to publicize her 'Tertiary Period Catastrophism' theory, which she expected would revolutionize Australian science. Her ideas, which were grand, romantic and wrong, centred on a vision in which volcanic action, shaped by the mystical powers of heat, electricity and magnetism, had created all valuable mineral deposits and all modern geological structures from the Jenolan Caves to the Niagara Falls. She was deeply hurt when a paper to be read on her behalf (women were not eligible to attend) was rejected by the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1892.  She believed that Professor (Sir) Edgeworth David and E. F. Pittman had repudiated her work in order to pass off her ideas as their own.  To retaliate, she published her papers in the Sydney Morning Herald and wrote to major organizations and scientists—from the University of Sydney to T. H. Huxley—to plead her cause.  As she became more isolated and eccentric, her claims became more extravagant, including that Einstein had 'stolen' her ideas about relativity and that diamonds were originally marine organisms. She increasingly cast herself as a persecuted genius.

In the early twentieth century King turned to publishing papers on anthropological subjects, drawing on her father's publications and extending her geological theories to explain the evolution of the Aborigines. Her works were admired by amateur anthropologists who were also in dispute with university professionals. Elected a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society of Australasia, she published several articles in its journal, Science of Man. From 1913 she corresponded with Daisy Bates, whom she financially supported and with whom she developed a close friendship.  Both were frustrated that established scientists failed to acknowledge and praise their work.

A 'keen observer of natural phenomena and a collector of specimens of interest', King donated many to the Australian and the Technological (Powerhouse) museums, Sydney.  She wrote numerous letters on diverse subjects to the daily newspapers, and during World War I worked for the Australian Red Cross Society.  Later she made golliwogs for patients at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children.

Her father and Bennett having advised her not to marry if she wished to develop her talent, she reputedly refused a proposal of marriage from Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, to whom she sent botanical specimens.  Towards the end of her life she wrote: 'I was one of those pioneer women who have had a hard time, but I was making things easier for women coming after me'. Georgina King died on 7 June 1932 at her Darling Point home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australian Science, 11, no 3, 1997, p 340
  • U. Bygott, ‘Georgina King--Amateur Geologist and Anthropologist--1845-1932’, University of Sydney Archives, Record, Jan 1982, p 11
  • D. F. Branagan, ‘Georgina King: Geological Prophet or Lost?’, University of Sydney Archives, Record, Sept 1982, p 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 1932, p 18
  • C. Hooker, Not a Job in the Ordinary Sense: Women and Science in Australia 1788-1960 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 2001)
  • file 8764 (University of Sydney Archives)
  • G. King papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Ursula Bygott and Claire Hooker, 'King, Georgina (1845–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/king-georgina-13025/text23549, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 1 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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