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Lhotsky, John (1795–1866)

by G. P. Whitley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John Lhotsky (1795?-1866?), naturalist, was born probably in 1795 in Lemberg (Lwów), Galicia. He was educated in Prague and Berlin, and joined the Bavarian Botanical Society and became a doctor of medicine in Vienna. The King of Bavaria bestowed a grant to assist his botanical and zoological research in South America and Australia, and after eighteen months in Brazil he arrived in Sydney in 1832.

Lhotsky unsuccessfully sought appointment as colonial zoologist in the museum in Sydney. In 1834 with government help he travelled to the Monaro district and explored its southern mountains. His A Journey from Sydney to the Australian Alps, incompletely published in Sydney in 1834-35, was his most important work. It introduced the Snowy River to geography and the prospect of a future city on the limestone 'Kembery' plains; he also envisaged rural development by artesian wells. Back in Sydney he exhibited his new specimens which were said to include gold, but his money was exhausted and his creditors began to press. He sold wood and vegetables for a living and with increasing vehemence kept on trying for a scientific post in the public service. Supported by Baron Bulow, the Prussian ambassador in London, he appealed to the Colonial Office in October 1835 for government help in another expedition to collect specimens for the royal museum at Berlin. When notified next April that this plea was rejected, he appealed again to be rewarded for his discoveries in the interior.

Disgusted with Sydney he went to Hobart Town in October 1836 in the Francis Freeling. Next month he was recommended by the surveyor-general, George Frankland, to be appointed colonial naturalist. The acting lieutenant-governor refused, but allowed Lhotsky rations and three assigned servants to collect specimens to be delivered into Frankland's keeping. In less than two months he had more than 100 mineral specimens and 300 plants 'arranged as in European collections'. After Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin arrived Lhotsky was appointed at 10s. a day to plan development of the coal-mines near Port Arthur by convict labour. He also made a complete geological map of Tasman Peninsula and at Hobart reported on a spring in the limekilns that Franklin wanted to use for improving the town's water supply.

After three months Lhotsky applied for an increased wage but lost his job. He turned to lecturing and journalism, with some initiative interviewing William Buckley and testing him on the geography of his travels and his knowledge of Aboriginal languages. He also applied for naturalization, but his debts continued to mount. He appealed to the government to buy his collection of natural history as the embryo of a national museum. Franklin was sympathetic but would not have it even at half-price; it was put up for private sale and the Legislative Council agreed to pay Lhotsky's remaining debts. In April 1838 he sailed for London in the Emu.

Lhotsky had acquired letters by Ferdinand Bauer written during the voyage of the Investigator, which he presented to the Linnean Society in London. A personal letter of recommendation from Franklin to Sir Roderick Murchison was less well received. Lhotsky eked out a living by lecturing and writing. He sank into dire poverty and his health deteriorated. A late record of him is a letter to John Dunmore Lang in 1861 proposing to apply to the Legislative Council in Sydney for alms as the first scientific discoverer of gold. He died probably on 23 November 1866 in the Dalston German Hospital, London.

Lhotsky's newspaper articles are too numerous to list. The Royal Society's Catalogue of Scientific Papers shows his contributions to the proceedings of English and other European scientific bodies. His first Australian article was probably the anonymous 'Australian sketches, no l' in the Sydney Gazette, 6 October 1832. Next year he conducted the natural history section of the New South Wales Magazine, and anonymously published Illustrations of the Present State and Future Prospects of the Colony of New South Wales (Sydney, 1835). His 'Song of the Women of the Menero Tribe' was 'the first specimen of Australian Music', and he also compiled an unpublished vocabulary of Tasmanian Aboriginals in 1836 and 1837 (Mitchell Library). Political and natural history articles appeared in the New South Wales Literary, Political and Commercial Advertiser and, from 1837, in Information for the People (Hobart). In London he continued to publish tracts and pamphlets: Hunger and Revolution (1843); On Cases of Death by Starvation (1844); Life of Moses … a Programme of European Democracy (n.d.); Era Victoriae Humanae (1847); Regeneration of Society the Only Corrective of Distress … (1844), 2nd ed (London, 1845); and Second Reformation (1844).

Lhotsky was diligent in his scientific investigations; a genus of plants (Lhotskia) and another of fishes (Lhotskya) commemorate him. A volatile figure, he thought his years in Sydney came close to martyrdom, but much of the fault was his own. He was careless with money and too outspoken in criticism of those in high places. Rebuffs by officials drove him to despair and made him noisily hostile. Yet for all his tactlessness he was humane and imaginative towards helpless convicts and Aboriginals, reserving his medical knowledge for only the distressed poor. In London Murchison called him a mad Pole, but in Hobart a conservative editor refused to join thoughtlessly in the odium liberally thrown on this stranger and foreigner.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Paszkowski, Polacy w Australii i Oceanii 1790-1940 (Lond, 1962)
  • Tasmanian History Pamphlets, vol 1 (held at State Library of Victoria)
  • J. H. Maiden, ‘Records of Australian Botanists: Lhotsky, Johann’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 42, 1908, pp 72-74
  • R. Etheridge junr, ‘Australian Museum, Fragments of its Early History’, Records of the Australian Museum, vol 11, 1916, pp 67-79, and vol 12, 1919, pp 339-99 + plates
  • T. Iredale, ‘Lhotsky's Lament’, Australian Zoologist, vol 3, 1922-24, pp 223-26
  • G. P. Whitley, ‘Some Early Naturalists and Collectors in Australia’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 19, part 5, 1933, pp 291-323
  • CSO 5/72/1584 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • Lang papers, 7, 182-4 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Calder papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. P. Whitley, 'Lhotsky, John (1795–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lhotsky-john-2357/text3085, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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