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Joseph Bosisto (1824–1898)

by James Griffin

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Joseph Bosisto (1824-1898), chemist and parliamentarian, was born on 21 March 1824 at Leeds, England, son of William Bosisto and his wife Maria, née Lazenby, both of Huguenot extraction. As a child he lived in Yorkshire and Surrey, left school in 1839, was apprenticed to a druggist and gained certificates in 1847 from the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain which later made him an honorary member. Engaged by F. H. Faulding of Adelaide he sailed in the Competitor in June 1848. Soon after arrival he met Ferdinand Mueller; their friendship lasted nearly fifty years. In 1851 he went to the Forest Creek goldfields where he seems to have spent more time examining local flora than digging for gold. In 1852 he returned to Adelaide and married Eliza Johnston. They settled at Richmond, Victoria, where in a renovated hotel stable he soon had a prosperous pharmacy and was consulted as 'Doctor' Bosisto.

His decoctions of eucalyptus oil used in a variety of medicinal products were to make Bosisto a household name. His first stills were near Dandenong but his search for suitable leaves led him far afield. He was not the first to distil eucalyptus oil, for Surgeons John White, Dennis Considen and Robert Officer had done so long before 1853, but Bosisto was probably first to make it commercially and to win repute for manufacturing Australia's first 'original' product. The parrot on the yellow label was his most famous trademark, familiar to every valetudinarian. His 'Syrup of Red Gum' was advertised as having a 'delicate mucilaginous astringency [that] renders it effectual in all affections of the mucous membrane of the Stomach and Bowels, inducing a feeling of repose and tranquility'. His products were known in Britain by 1865 and later in Europe, India and South Africa. In 1882 he became a partner of Felton & Grimwade and in 1885 his original firm became their subsidiary. When Bosisto had financial difficulties in 1889 he mortgaged his share to his partners.

Bosisto was no huckster or quack but an earnest man of science with an eye for business. He was a founder of the Pharmaceutical Society of Victoria in 1857 and later its president and co-editor of its Journal. In 1858 he joined the Royal Society of Victoria and was later a councillor, publishing extensively in its Proceedings. His writings were notable for their expertise and lucidity, and reveal a questioning mind. Affirming that the eucalypt was a 'Fever Destroying Tree', he credited it with 'an active agency' superior to that in vegetation of other countries, affecting even virulent fever so that it 'dies at its opening day'; without this 'happy and benign influence [which exists] independent of ourselves, we might mourn our fate'. Bosisto's lecturing style was also popular and allusive: his subject of 'Perfume Plants' easily led him to the 'Song of Songs' and Akenside's Pleasures of the Imagination. His reports from the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 in London were almost Benthamite, emphasizing the training of artisans and the need for Australians to study scientifically the growing of silk, vines, tobacco, etc. Some fifty medals from international exhibitions and a C.M.G. conferred at Osborne House in 1886 testify to his repute.

Known to his friends as 'Bos', he was kindly, dignified and committed to public service. At Richmond he served for twelve years on the Municipal Council and was mayor in 1865-67. As chairman of the bench for six years he was noted for his impartiality and patience. He represented Richmond in the Legislative Assembly in 1874 until defeated in 1889; according to the Richmond Guardian, he had become too remote from his electoral committees and constituents, and his age fitted him more for the Legislative Council. After electorates were realigned he represented Jolimont and West Richmond in 1892-94. More didactic than forceful, his parliamentary speeches show him to be instinctively moderate and uncertainly conservative. Although a free trader in principle, he upheld a moderate tariff because it was the settled policy of the colony and helped infant industries. Priding himself on integrity and independence, he deprecated mere obstruction and tended to vote with governments which tried to fulfil electoral promises. He believed in universal suffrage but also in the dual vote. He opposed payment of members yet claimed, amid the ironical cheers of Richmond electors, to be a friend of the working man and an opponent of class legislation. Staunchly adherent to the status quo, he claimed that female suffrage would cause domestic unhappiness and defended imprisonment for debt. In 1894 he advocated an increased property tax but opposed income tax and voted against the Patterson government which he had helped to form. The highlight of his parliamentary career was his pharmacy bill, introduced in 1876 with lucid and painstaking explanations. He also helped to establish the College of Pharmacy and to limit the sale of poisons to druggists and doctors. He was chairman of the Technological Commission and claimed that a university chair of pharmacy would be far more valuable than one of comparative philology.

Bosisto lost heavily in the building society crashes and spent his last years in straitened circumstances. Modest and genial, he still wore the frilled shirts which were going out of fashion when he left England. The Bulletin, 17 October 1896, noted that he 'embarks joyously in perfume manufacturing on his Wimmera farm'. He was predeceased by his wife; they had no children. He died aged 74 in Richmond on 8 November 1898 and was buried in the Anglican section of Boroondara cemetery. He left a deficit of £56 and a request for no flowers. After a number of changes of ownership, by the early 21st century the company Bosisto founded was again in Australian hands, still manufacturing products such as eucalyptus and tea tree oils from Australian sources.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt and W. D. Lilburn (eds), The Jubilee History of Victoria and Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
  • R. Grimwade, Flinders Lane: Recollections of Alfred Felton (Melb, 1947)
  • J. R. Poynter, Russell Grimwade (Melb, 1967)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1864-65, 1 (A10), 2 (D33), 1876, 1 (D3), 1877-94
  • Richmond Australian, 5, 12 Dec 1874, 14 Apr 1877, 12 May 1894, 12 Nov 1898
  • Australasian Sketcher, 14 Mar 1883, 2 June 1884
  • Richmond Guardian, 5, 13, 27 Mar 1886, 2, 30 Mar, 6 Apr 1889, 27 Feb 1892, 2 Apr, 8 Sept 1894, 9 Nov 1898
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 Nov 1898
  • Argus (Melbourne), 9 Nov 1898
  • Table Talk, 27 Oct 1894, 11 Nov 1898
  • M. J. Finlayson, Victorian Politics 1889-94 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964).

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Citation details

James Griffin, 'Bosisto, Joseph (1824–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 May 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

Life Summary [details]


21 March, 1824
Leeds, Yorkshire, England


8 November, 1898 (aged 74)
Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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