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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Anderson, Robert Henry (1899–1969)

by L. A. S. Johnson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Robert Henry Anderson (1899-1969), botanist, was born on 12 March 1899 at Cooma, New South Wales, son of native-born parents Rev. William Addison Smyth Anderson, Presbyterian clergyman, and his wife Jane, née Thompson, late Corbett. Educated with his elder brother (Sir) William at Fort Street Boys' High School, Robert attended the University of Sydney (B.Sc.Agr., 1921) and won the Belmore scholarship (1917). Fair haired, blue eyed and 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 6 June 1918 and embarked for Britain, but was recalled from Cape Town after the Armistice was signed and never again left Australia.

On 4 January 1921 he became a botanical assistant at the National Herbarium of New South Wales, Botanic Gardens, Sydney, under J. H. Maiden. Anderson married Isabel Ellen Tyler on 10 March 1923 at the Presbyterian Church, Manly. While largely occupied in routine identification and advice to farmers in the 1920s and 1930s, he published research papers on the saltbush family (Chenopodiaceae). Given his limited field-experience, his books, Tree Planting on the Farm (1931) and The Trees of New South Wales (1932), were skilful compilations and were later expanded and updated.

As botanist and curator from 1936, Anderson ran the herbarium, already administratively divorced from the gardens; appointed chief botanist and curator in 1945, he took charge of both institutions which were responsible to separate masters and had rigidly non-transferable funds. Although he was granted the composite title of director and chief botanist in 1960, functional unity was achieved only by his successor.

Anderson struggled with those politicians and public servants who thought that, so long as lawns were mown and farmers' weeds identified, all was well. In the herbarium he built up a group of scientific botanists who produced authoritative publications, but his expectations of a new herbarium building remained unfulfilled. Science engaged him less than management, yet—encouraged by Joyce Vickery—he founded a journal of taxonomic botany, Contributions from the New South Wales National Herbarium; by a characteristically benign sleight of hand, he gulled the government printer and accountants into believing that a new Flora of New South Wales was part of the Contributions.

The gardens, Domain and Centennial Park required constant defence against government incursions. Anderson lost a valiantly-fought battle when the Cahill Expressway (1959) sundered his territory, destroying historic Fig Tree Avenue. Stocky and convivial, with a dry humour, Anderson combined healthy cynicism with essential kindness, fairness and affability; he relished quirkiness and delighted in outwitting departmental bureaucrats. He saw himself as a democratic socialist, but was nonetheless gratified by the redesignation of his institution as the Royal Botanic Gardens after a visit by the Queen Mother in 1958.

Anderson enabled his scientists to travel a little in Australia for collecting, and sometimes abroad, but did not himself seek such opportunities; he remained somewhat parochial and unduly satisfied with his institution. He introduced professional landscape design, appointed a botanical collector and revived exchange programmes: his administration began the Botanic Gardens' recovery from their long decline. Though he spent only 10 per cent of his time on the herbarium, it was on this scientific side that most improvement occurred. His appointments included an uncommonly high proportion of women.

Anderson lectured on forestry at the University of Sydney (1925-66) and served on the council of the Linnean Society of New South Wales (president 1940-41, honorary secretary 1966-69). Elected an honorary fellow (1966) of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, he was president of the geranium section of the Royal Horticultural Society of New South Wales; he belonged to the Everglades garden committee of the National Trust of Australia and to Bonnie Doon Golf Club.

His wife's death in 1962 plunged him into depression, but on 3 October 1963 in the registrar-general's office, Sydney, he married his secretary, a divorcee Phyllis Zena May, née Goddard, late Bell. Retiring in March 1964, he was garden editor of the Australian Women's Weekly until 1966. Survived by his wife and by the daughter of his first marriage, he died at his Chatswood home on 17 August 1969. His ashes were buried in his beloved Botanic Gardens where the original National Herbarium, now named the Anderson Building, bears a plaque with his likeness.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Gilbert, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney (Syd, 1986)
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 95, pt 1, 30 Nov 1970, p 3
  • Contributions from the N.S.W. National Herbarium, 4, no 5, 1972, p 245
  • Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, Annual Report, 1984-85
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Mar 1964, 1 Aug 1968, 19 Aug 1969
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 11 Mar 1964.

Citation details

L. A. S. Johnson, 'Anderson, Robert Henry (1899–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 30 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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