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Johann Ludwig (Louis) Krefft (1830–1881)

by Martha Rutledge and G. P. Whitley

This article was published:

Johann Ludwig Gerard (Louis) Krefft (1830-1881), zoologist, was born on 17 February 1830 in the Duchy of Brunswick, son of William Krefft, confectioner, and his wife Johanna, née Buschhoff. He attended St Martin's College, Brunswick, in 1834-45 and then worked in a mercantile firm in Halberstadt. In 1850 he migrated to the United States and in November 1852 reached Victoria in the Revenue. He worked on various goldfields until 1857 when he went with William Blandowski's expedition to the Lower Murray and Darling Rivers. He made a large natural history collection and was employed by the National Museum, Melbourne, to catalogue it.

After his father died Krefft visited Germany in 1858. In 1860 he returned to Sydney with an introduction to Governor Sir William Denison and in June was appointed assistant curator of the Australian Museum on Denison's recommendation. The museum's trustees argued with the government about which authority should make the appointment and in May 1864 Krefft became curator. He had a broad knowledge of zoology and geology but specialized in snakes. He built up the museum's collections and won international repute as a scientist. Among his many correspondents were Charles Darwin, Sir Richard Owen and A. C. L. Gunther of the British Museum, Professor Agassiz in America and many learned German scientists. Krefft was one of the few Australian scientists to accept Darwin's theory of evolution and disseminate his ideas in the 1860s. He became a councillor of the Royal Society of New South Wales, a fellow of the Linnean Society of London, a corresponding member of the Zoological Society of London and a member of several European scientific societies. In 1869 he was made a knight of the Crown of Italy.

In 1866 Krefft explored the Wellington caves and publicized their fossils. His most notable discovery was the Queensland lungfish, which he named Ceratodus forsteri after William Forster. He also named a giant devil ray after the Duke of Edinburgh, for whose entertainment he staged a fight between a snake and a mongoose at the museum. In some 200 articles Krefft described many species. His more important publications include The Snakes of Australia (1869), his description of the lungfish in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1870 and The Mammals of Australia (1871). Some of his observations on animals have not been surpassed and can no longer be equalled because of the spread of settlement. A capable artist, he depicted scenery, Aboriginals and animals of the Murray River and wrote many illustrated articles for the Sydney Mail.

Devoted to the museum's interests, Krefft had clashes with some of the trustees, notably (Sir) William Macleay, Dr James Cox, Captain Arthur Onslow, Alexander Scott and Edward Smith Hill, most of whom were building up private collections sometimes at the expense of the museum. In December 1873 several specimens of gold were stolen from the museum and various rumours involved Krefft. In 1874 a Legislative Assembly select committee inquired into the working of the museum. The evidence was conflicting, but in its report the committee recommended the dismissal of Krefft. He appealed to Henry Parkes to send the attorney-general or another minister to the monthly meetings of trustees. On 16 June, at a special meeting with no ministerial trustees present, the trustees set up a subcommittee to inquire into Krefft's behaviour. The twelve charges ranged from drunkenness to disobeying the trustees' orders. Krefft sought help from Parkes who replied: 'You have been much to blame for indiscretion & in some cases disobedience … I have great respect for your undoubted ability & am truly sorry that you should be involved in such a disagreeable difficulty. I trust and believe you will be able to dispose of the charges preferred against you which as explained to me are in many respects frivolous. But you must learn to keep a cool temper & a respectful bearing even to gentlemen who may be opposed to you'.

Krefft refused to defend himself until shown the charges and evidence collected by the subcommittee. However, the trustees found Krefft unfit to be curator and dismissed him. He denied that they had such power and barricaded himself inside the museum. Late in August he was forcibly ejected by Hill for the trustees and some of his property taken. Krefft sued Hill and was awarded £250 damages; Judge Cheeke ruled that the trustees had no power to dismiss the curator. In 1875 Hill sought a retrial but the judges differed on the trustees' power of dismissal. Judge Hargrave criticized the trustees' behaviour as 'altogether illegal, harsh and unjust' while Judge Faucett believed Krefft's 'conduct justified his dismissal'. In 1876 parliament voted £1000 to Krefft for arrears of salary until July when his dismissal was finally confirmed by the governor-in-council. The Robertson government refused to pay unless Krefft signed a bond renouncing all claims against the government and trustees. In vain he appealed to the Supreme Court to compel the treasurer to pay. The Cumberland Times commented that, since the treasurer, attorney-general and chief justice were all trustees, 'unconscious prejudice, resulting from the circumstances of their position, must certainly have biassed their decision'. In 1877 Krefft sued the trustees for medals and property detained in the museum and was awarded £925 and refused to compromise when they offered to return his belongings with only £200.

The museum affair demoralized Krefft and destroyed his livelihood. Many of his research papers remained unpublished and his collections were damaged and muddled. His financial position was precarious and even a strong recommendation from Parkes could not win him employment. In 1880 his estate was sequestrated with liabilities of £1131. He died on 19 February 1881 from congestion of the lungs and was buried in the churchyard of St Jude's Church of England, Randwick. He was survived by his wife Annie, née McPhail, whom he had married on 6 February 1869, and by two sons. Two other children predeceased him. A great-nephew, Gerard Krefft, became a distinguished ichthyologist in Germany.

Select Bibliography

  • Krefft v. Hill, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of New South Wales, vol 13, 1877, pp 280-304
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1870-71, 4, 1176, 1873-74, 5, 833, 930, 1875, 4, 243, 303, 1876-77, 5, 877, 1877-78, 2, 666
  • G. P. Whitley, ‘The life and work of Gerard Krefft’, Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 1958-59
  • G. P. Whitley, ‘Gerard Krefft and his bibliography’, Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 1967-68
  • Bulletin, 29 Jan, 26 Feb, 9 Apr 1881
  • Krefft letters (British Museum of Natural History, and Zoological Society, London)
  • Krefft manuscript (State Library of New South Wales and Australian Museum, Sydney)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge and G. P. Whitley, 'Krefft, Johann Ludwig (Louis) (1830–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 February, 1830
Brunswick, Lower Saxony, Germany


19 February, 1881 (aged 51)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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