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Preiss, Johann August Ludwig (1811–1883)

by J. H. Calaby

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

Johann August Ludwig Preiss (1811-1883), naturalist, was born on 21 November 1811 at Herzberg am Harz, Germany. He attended university and received the degree of D. Phil. He arrived in the Swan River settlement in December 1838, became a naturalized British subject in 1841, but left for London in January 1842 and apparently spent the rest of his life in Germany. He settled at Herzberg am Harz in 1844 and died there on 21 November 1883.

Preiss was primarily a plant collector but he made extensive collections of natural history specimens of all kinds. In the course of his activities he visited most of the known parts of south-western Australia and several islands off the coast. He also bought specimens from local residents notably Johnston Drummond, son of James Drummond, the naturalist. When John Gilbert, the able collector employed by John Gould, arrived in the colony in March 1839 he was dismayed to find Preiss there and in a letter to Gould complained that his rival had bought practically everything offering and was paying high prices. Gilbert informed Gould that in his dealings with the settlers he was endeavouring to overcome the foreign collector's established position by appealing to patriotic sentiments.

Preiss's very large collection of about 200,000 plant specimens was described by Johann Georg Christian Lehmann and a number of European collaborators, and published in Hamburg in parts in 1844-47 under the title Plantae Preissianae Sive Enumeratio Plantarum Quas in Australasia Occidentali et Meridionale Occidentali Annis 1838-41 Collegit L. Preiss … Some plants collected by James Drummond and others from eastern Australia collected by (Sir) Thomas Mitchell and John Lhotsky were also described in the work. Because of Preiss's thoroughness as a collector and the large number of species described and named for the first time in the Plantae Preissianae, it is an important reference work for the study of the Australian flora. Most of the collections of mollusc shells made by Preiss were dealt with by Carl Theodor Menke in a work entitled Molluscorum Novae Hollandiae Specimen … published in Hanover in 1843.

Unfortunately for Preiss his large collections of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and other material did not receive the treatment they deserved, and later workers received the credit for discovering new species which were undoubtedly first collected by him. He is known to have recorded extensive notes on his specimens but these do not appear to have survived. In October 1839 he offered to sell a large and important collection of bird skins to the government at Perth, but apparently the offer was declined. While in London he visited Gould and gave to him for description specimens of two kinds of kangaroos which had not until then come to Gould's notice. Preiss sold most of his specimens of animals to various European museums, or dealers in natural history specimens, but most of them seem to have disappeared or cannot now be distinguished as having been collected by him. The only extant collection of Preiss's birds of any note seems to be that in the Municipal Museum of Halberstadt. Although so few specimens of mammals known to have come from Preiss can now be traced, dates and localities on labels attached to some specimens in European museums suggest that those specimens were collected by him. Had Preiss the backing of an ambitious and enterprising zoologist, as Gilbert had in Gould, it is certain that he would have been much better known today.

Select Bibliography

  • W. T. Stearn, ‘Lehmann's “Plantae Preissianae”’, Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 1 (1939), 203-5
  • H. M. Whittell, ‘A Review of the Work of John Gilbert in Western Australia’, Emu, vol 41, part 2, 1941, pp 112-29, vol 41, part 3, 1942, pp 216-42 and vol 41, part 4, 1942, pp 289-305
  • L. Glauert, ‘The Ornithological Collecting of Dr L. Preiss in 1839’, Western Australian Naturalist, vol 1, no 7, Dec 1948, pp 147-48
  • W. Meise, ‘Notes on the Ornithological Collections of Preiss in the Swan River Colony, 1838-1841’, Emu, vol 51, part 2, Oct 1951, pp 148-51.

Citation details

J. H. Calaby, 'Preiss, Johann August Ludwig (1811–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/preiss-johann-august-ludwig-2561/text3493, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 1 October 2014.

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

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