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Ernst Betche (1851–1913)

by Terri McCormack

This article was published:

Ernst Betche (1851-1913), by unknown photographer

Ernst Betche (1851-1913), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 20777

Ernst Betche (1851-1913), botanist, was born on 31 December 1851 and baptized Daniel Ludwig Ernst at Potsdam, near Berlin. His mother died at his birth and he was of delicate constitution all his life. His father was sufficiently well off to send him to winter in the warmer climate of Italy. Betche attended the Hochschule of Potsdam but ill health prevented him from gaining the university entrance examination and also exempted him from military service. Obliged to choose an outdoor life, he attended the Horticultural College at Potsdam and later was employed in the Municipal Gardens at Berlin.

In 1874 he became a volunteer gardener in the establishment of Louis Van Houtte (1810-1876) at Ghent, Belgium. Attracted by the warm climate of the South Seas he sailed from Cardiff, England, to Samoa. An introduction to the German consul-general at Samoa enabled him to visit Tonga and the Marshall and Caroline Islands in a German man-of-war. Betche intended to become a planter and exporter of tropical plants, but his plan proved commercially unsatisfactory. He went to Sydney in 1880 by way of Cooktown. As a result of his travels he contributed two papers on the vegetation of the islands to German publications; he sent his ferns to the University of Leipzig and the remainder of his collection to Ferdinand Mueller.

On 26 September 1881 Charles Moore, director of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, appointed him botanical collector. Betche travelled over much of New South Wales and in August 1891 acquired colonial citizenship. Under the new director, Joseph Henry Maiden, he became botanical assistant on 3 March 1897 and later became chief botanical assistant. Through travelling and reading, Betche acquired a thorough knowledge of Australian flowering plants and ferns and accomplished much valuable and useful work in connexion with the Botanic Gardens and National Herbarium. He was the author of many scholarly works on systematic botany in Australia. He collaborated with Charles Moore in the Handbook of the Flora of New South Wales (Sydney, 1893); a second edition was in preparation in 1913. His investigations into colonial flora with Maiden were published by the Linnean Society in a series 'Notes from the Botanic Gardens, Sydney'. He published many other papers in Australian scientific and horticultural journals and co-operated with Maiden in a much-needed publication, A Census of New South Wales Plants (Sydney, 1916). His contemporaries recognized him as an experienced and capable taxonomic botanist and he was long a member of both the Linnean Society and the German Club. Aged 61 and unmarried he died of consumption in Sydney on 28 June 1913; the mourners at his burial in Waverley cemetery were all botanical colleagues and the service was conducted by a Lutheran pastor.

Betche's retiring disposition was intensified by his complaint. His few friends knew him to be conscientious and unselfish with an unfailing capacity for sustained and thorough work. His life was devoted solely to botanical study and less than twelve hours before his death he was eager to give details of a new plant indigenous to New South Wales. In his unostentatious way Betche accomplished much valuable work in Australian botany.

Select Bibliography

  • J. H. Maiden, Sydney Botanic Gardens: Biographical Notes Concerning the Officers in Charge (Syd, 1902)
  • Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 47 (1913), 48 (1914)
  • W. S. Dun, ‘Presidential Address’, Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, vol 39, 1914, pp 3-4
  • J. H. Maiden, ‘Records of Australian Botanists’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 55, 1921, pp 150-69
  • W. W. Froggatt, ‘The Curators and Botanists of the Botanic Gardens, Sydney’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 18, part 3, 1932, pp 101-33
  • New South Wales. Botanic Gardens and Government Domains, Report for the Year, 1913.

Citation details

Terri McCormack, 'Betche, Ernst (1851–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ernst Betche (1851-1913), by unknown photographer

Ernst Betche (1851-1913), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 20777

Life Summary [details]


31 December, 1851


28 June, 1913 (aged 61)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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