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Patten, Robert Anthony (1889–1958)

by Robert I. Taylor

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Robert Anthony Patten (1889-1958), veterinary surgeon and zoological-park superintendent, was born on 20 June 1889 at Wellington, New South Wales, second child of Robert Patten, a schoolteacher from England, and his native-born wife Emelia Bridget, née Bernasconi. Bob attended Wellington Superior Public School and Hawkesbury Agricultural College. He began his veterinary education as a private pupil of A. P. Gribben, in Sydney. In 1910 he entered the new faculty of veterinary science at the University of Sydney (B.V.Sc., 1914). On 20 August 1914 he was appointed captain, Australian Army Veterinary Corps, Australian Imperial Force. He served in Egypt and at Gallipoli with the 1st Infantry Brigade, and in Egypt and on the Western Front with the 14th Field Artillery Brigade. In December 1916 he was promoted major. Next year he returned to Australia where his A.I.F. appointment terminated on 4 December.

On 8 May 1918 Patten joined the Department of Trade and Commerce as a customs officer. In May 1920 he was gazetted manager of North Bangaroo horse stud farm by the New South Wales Department of Agriculture. At St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral, Sydney, on 10 September that year he married Eva Aileen Rutherford, a 27-year-old bank clerk. Following the closure of the stud in 1923, he established a veterinary practice at Orange. Employed by the Department of Trade and Customs from 1925, he lectured part time on meat inspection at Sydney Technical College.

In 1936 Patten was appointed superintendent (and later curator) of Taronga Zoological Park, nominally under A. S. Le Souef who had supervised the development of the zoo at Mosman. Patten found his practice remarkably similar to that of a doctor treating humans: in the course of his duties he 'pulled the teeth of tigers and orang-outangs, performed a Caesarean section on a normally vicious Cape dog, delivered a giraffe that stood 6 ft high a few days after its birth and supervised hormone treatment for ''balding" furred animals'. His greatest problem, however, was the careful planning of the diets of some 7000 animals.

By and large, Patten managed to work amicably with the chairman of trustees (Sir) Edward Hallstrom, although he was temporarily out of favour when a giraffe, two hippopotamuses and a rhinoceros died (July-August 1943). In 1941 Keefi, the first chimpanzee born at the zoo, was ignored by her mother. Patten and his wife reared her in their home for a year as if she were one of their children: the chimpanzee sucked from an infant's feeding-bottle, wore nappies and had her own pushchair. An insurance salesman, noticing a bassinet on the verandah, congratulated Mrs Patten on having a new baby, peeped under the net and fled in dismay. It was no small achievement to rear the chimpanzee, and the grateful trustees presented Mrs Patten with a gold watch. In 1947 the Pattens moved from their Roseville home to a flat at the zoo. The more confined space did not deter them from rearing a lion cub that had been attacked by its mother.

In 1947-54 Patten appeared as a panellist on 'Nature Speaks', a wildlife programme chaired by John Dease on radio-station 2GB. A member of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, Patten published articles in its Proceedings, the Australian Veterinary Journal, and in local and overseas magazines. He was an innovative, kind and honourable man who served the zoo with distinction and had many close friends inside and outside the profession. Retiring in 1954, he developed a substantial practice at Kellyville. He died of a cerebral tumour on 10 October 1958 in the Home of Peace, Wahroonga, and was cremated; his wife, son and daughter survived him, as did Keefi (d.1966).

Select Bibliography

  • I. Bevan, Keefi (Syd, 1945?)
  • R. Strahan, Beauty and the Beasts (Syd, 1991)
  • Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 1947-48, p 11, 1957-58, p 5
  • Australian Veterinary Journal, Dec 1958, p 437
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July 1953, 5 July 1954, 20 Oct 1958
  • Taronga Zoological Park, Board of Trustees minutes, 1938-54
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert I. Taylor, 'Patten, Robert Anthony (1889–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/patten-robert-anthony-11350/text20273, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 May 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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