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Amalie Dietrich (1821–1891)

by L. A. Gilbert

This article was published:

Amalie Dietrich (1821-1891), naturalist, was born at Siebenlehn, Saxony, daughter of Gottlieb Nelle(m), leather-worker, and his wife Cordel(ia). She was educated at the village school. Her passionate interest in natural history stemmed from a chance meeting with Wilhelm August Salomo Dietrich whom she married about 1846. He was ten years her senior and the son of a lawyer whose family was long associated with botany; though trained as a chemist he preferred collecting natural history specimens for sale to apothecaries, institutions and students. The couple rented a house in Siebenlehn where they were joined by Amalie's parents who ran the household while Dietrich took Amalie on long collecting trips. In March 1848 their daughter Charitas Concordia Sophie was born. When Cordel Nelle died in 1852 the household deteriorated for Amalie was ill equipped to cope with domestic tasks. The Dietrichs parted but were reconciled in November 1853 and resumed their expeditions. Alone on a trip to Holland Amalie's health broke down. She finally left her husband, took her daughter to Hamburg and hawked her prepared collections. In 1862 she was introduced to the merchant, J. C. Godeffroy, who was persuaded by well-known scientists to send her to Australia to collect for his private museum.

Amalie sailed in La Rochelle and by August 1863 was in Brisbane. She took a house on the river and began collecting industriously. Her letters to Charitas told of much new material: the Brisbane River 'yielded … rich spoils'; Gladstone was not so bounteous; at Rockhampton she found that the heat, though 'unbearable' had produced 'such a wealth of vegetation that literally everything towers high above my head'. At the Fitzroy River she dissected crocodiles twenty-two feet (6.7 metres) long; she suffered fever, lost her house by fire and was rescued by Aboriginals from a water-lily swamp. In 1866 she went to Mackay, thence to Lake Elphinstone and by August 1869 was collecting around Bowen. She went with two assistants to the Holborne Islands, returned to Bowen and then continued to Brisbane and Sydney. At Melbourne in 1871 she met Ferdinand Mueller. By February 1872 she was at Tonga, and on 4 March 1873, accompanied by two pet eagles, she returned to Hamburg.

Amalie Dietrich was enchanted by the natural history resources of Australia and collected plants, insects, corals, shells, mammals, fish, birds and Aboriginal remains. 'What freedom I enjoy here as a collector', she wrote. 'No one circumscribes my zeal … I speedily forget the discomforts of heat and mosquitoes in the unbounded feeling of joy that animates me when, at every step, I light upon treasures that no one has secured before me'.

For thirteen years Amalie worked in Godeffroy's museum. When his collections became the property of the City of Hamburg, she was given a post in the Botanical Museum. On a visit to her daughter at Rendsburg she contracted pneumonia, died on 9 March 1891 and was buried in Rendsburg cemetery. She was fearless and single-minded in the cause of the natural science she so eagerly learned from her difficult and selfish husband. Completely unconcerned about personal comfort and appearance, she must have seemed unusually eccentric. Within a limited scientific circle she was highly respected as an ardent collector and accurate observer, and was honoured by the names of several plant and animal species (e.g. Acacia dietrichiana, Bonamia dietrichiana, Nortonia amaliae and Odynerus dietrichianus). Bentham referred to her specimens in his Flora Australiensis. She was elected a fellow of the Entomological Society of Stettin, and her fifty Australian wood specimens earned a gold medal at a horticultural exhibition. Some of her plant specimens went to Mueller and are in the National Herbarium, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Bischoff, The Hard Road: The Life Story of Amalie Dietrich, translated by A. L. Geddie (Lond, 1931)
  • J. H. Maiden, ‘Records of Australian Botanists. (First Supplement)’, Report of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, 13th meeting, 1911, pp 224-43
  • G. Mulac-Teichmann, ‘A Tribute to the Naturalist, Amalie Dietrich’, Victorian Naturalist, vol 81, no 1, May 1964, pp 8-12.

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Citation details

L. A. Gilbert, 'Dietrich, Amalie (1821–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Amalie Dietrich, n.d.

Amalie Dietrich, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 60188

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Nelle, Amalie

Siebenlehn, Saxony, Germany


9 March, 1891 (aged ~ 70)
Rendsburg, Germany

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.