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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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FitzGerald, Robert David (1830–1892)

by L. A. Gilbert

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Robert David FitzGerald (1830-1892), surveyor and naturalist, was born on 30 November 1830 at Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland, son of Robert David FitzGerald, banker, and his wife Mary Ann, née Bell. He studied civil engineering at Queen's College, Cork, arrived at Sydney in 1856 and was appointed to the Department of Lands as a draftsman in August. In 1868 he was given charge of the roads branch and in 1873 became deputy surveyor general. In 1874-82 he was also chief mining surveyor and for some years controller of the Church and School Lands. On the surveyors' licensing board he examined cadet surveyors. After the Crown Lands Act, 1884, he sat on the commission of three to consider the future working of the department; much retrenchment resulted and his own office was abolished on 30 November 1887. In 1888-92 he served on the Public Service Commission.

FitzGerald was an enthusiastic ornithologist and a skilful taxidermist; in addition to some poetry, he contributed twenty articles on the birds of Kerry to the Kerry Magazine in 1855-56. From 1856 his drawings indicate his early interest in Australian natural history. He eagerly accompanied Walter Scott Campbell to Wallis Lake, north of Newcastle, in 1864 and collected ferns and orchids for the greenhouse and gardens of his home, Adraville, Hunter's Hill. In May 1869 with Charles Moore and William Carron he visited Lord Howe Island; in 1871 he returned to the island and again in November 1876, each time making botanical collections. In 1874 he was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London and in 1876 a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

With Arthur James Stopps (1833-1931), a lithographer in the Lands Department, FitzGerald published the first seven parts of his Australian Orchids between July 1875 and October 1882. These comprised Volume I, dedicated to Charles Darwin. Four parts of Volume II were published before 1892 and the fifth was brought out by his friend Henry Deane. The exquisite lithograph plates, which included enlargements of FitzGerald's painstaking dissections, were hand-coloured by various artists from instructions and sample sheets coloured by FitzGerald. This work brought him fame. J. D. Hooker considered it 'a work which would be an honour to any country and to any Botanist', while George Bentham wrote, 'Thanks to you the Australian Orchideae are now better known than those of any other country out of Europe'. At Balmain on 3 July 1860 FitzGerald married Emily Blackwell, daughter of Edward Hunt, M.L.C., and his wife Hannah Paget, née Mason. Three sons and three daughters survived him when he died at Hunter's Hill on 12 August 1892. He was buried in the Presbyterian section of the old Balmain cemetery.

Described by his friends as sedate and grave but with a fund of Irish humour, FitzGerald was an efficient surveyor, engineer and public servant and a dedicated naturalist whose hobby attained scientific standard and recognition. He saw the need for reserving land in the Blue Mountains and elsewhere. Though he had little inclination to preserve dried specimens, his botanical work bridged the gap between amateur and professional botany in his day. He described many species of orchids for the first time in his Australian Orchids and in the Journal of Botany, and eyebrows were raised in professional circles when he described the beech orchid, Dendrobium falcorostrum, in the Sydney Morning Herald on 18 November 1876. He is remembered not only for naming Australian orchids but also by names bestowed in his honour: a spider orchid, Caladenia fitzgeraldii Rupp; the ravine orchid, Sarcochilus fitzgeraldii F. Muell., 'the most ornate and beautiful of all Australian species of the genus' (Rupp); and the giant epacrid, Dracophyllum fitzgeraldii F. Muell., which he discovered on Lord Howe Island. His grandson Robert David FitzGerald became a poet and surveyor.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Woolls, In Memory of R. D. FitzGerald … (Syd, 1892)
  • J. H. Maiden, ‘Records of Australian Botanists’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 42, 1908, pp 60-132
  • C. A. Messmer, ‘The Biography of Robert David FitzGerald, F.L.S., and Arthur James Stopps, F.L.S.’, Victorian Naturalist, vol 48, no 580, Apr 1932, pp 233-45
  • Sydney Mail, 3 Sept 1892
  • New South Wales Department of Lands records
  • Robert David FitzGerald papers (State Library of New South Wales and National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

L. A. Gilbert, 'FitzGerald, Robert David (1830–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 19 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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