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Carl Sophus Lumholtz (1851–1922)

by H. J. Gibbney

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Carl Sophus Lumholtz (1851-1922), scientist and traveller, was born on 23 April 1851 near Lillehammer, Norway, son of a Norwegian army officer. He was educated at Lillehammer Latin og Realskole but objected to his father's idea of a clerical career and spent twelve months as a tutor in a country family. He then capitulated to his family and took a theological degree at the University of Christiania, but gradually became a zoological collector.

Lumholtz was encouraged by Professor R. Collett of the university, who in 1880 sent him on his first major expedition. He left Christiania in the sailing ship Einar Tambarskjelver and landed in South Australia on 1 September. He moved on to Rockhampton where in December 1880 he presented a letter of introduction to the Archer brothers of Gracemere, who had family connexions with Norway. For seven months he collected near Gracemere and from July 1881 to January 1882 made a long trip through western Queensland. Later in the year he went to the Cardwell area and established a new base at Herbert Vale. He decided that the best way to collect natural history specimens was to join the Aboriginals and for fourteen months lived and travelled with a tribe: he became the first scientist to describe the tree kangaroo which bears his name. He then visited Gracemere, left Brisbane in the steamer Dacca in March 1884 and returned to Norway with a large collection of zoological specimens for the University of Christiania. His Among Cannibals (London, 1889), in which he described his travels in Australia, was translated into four languages.

His Australian experience had fired his interest in primitive people and between 1890 and 1910 Lumholtz spent eight years on six expeditions into northern Mexico, the results of which were recorded in Unknown Mexico (London, 1912) and other minor works. In 1914 he planned an expedition to Dutch New Guinea with Norwegian support but because of World War I was diverted to Borneo where he spent two years, recorded in Through Central Borneo (London, 1920). In June 1921 he published a new plan for the exploration of New Guinea in an autobiographical article, 'My life of exploration', published in the New York journal Natural History, but before the plan matured he died at Saranac Lake, New York, on 5 May 1922.

Lumholtz was a perceptive observer but his observations were very unsystematic and sketchy. However, later research has confirmed some of his findings on tribal and territorial organization.

Select Bibliography

  • Natural History (New York), 22 (1922)
  • ‘A Norwegian naturalist in Australia’, Argus (Melbourne), 14 Jan 1890
  • Archer papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Lumholtz, Carl Sophus (1851–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 19 May 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]


23 April, 1851
Lillehammer, Norway


5 May, 1922 (aged 71)
Saranac Lake, New York, United States of America

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