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Joseph Henry Maiden (1859–1925)

by Mark Lyons and C. J. Pettigrew

This article was published:

Joseph Henry Maiden (1859-1925), botanist and public servant, was born on 25 April 1859 at St John's Wood, London, eldest son of Henry Maiden, china dealer and later accountant, and his wife Mary Elizabeth, née Wells. He was educated at the City of London Middle Class School where he excelled in scientific subjects, was taught chemistry by Professor F. Barff and even while at school acted as his assistant. Ill health which prevented his accepting a scholarship to Christ's College, Cambridge, and completing a science degree at the University of London, led him in 1880 to sail for Sydney.

The committee of the Technical or Working Men's College invited Maiden to deliver a course of lectures. He later contacted a friend of Barff, Professor Liversidge, who offered him the post of curator of the new Technological Museum. Maiden agreed, although intending to return within a year to England. However, he enjoyed the work and on 30 November 1883 at Holy Trinity Church, Kew, Melbourne, married Eliza Jane Hammond. In 1885 Maiden began to study at the University of Sydney but again his health failed.

He threw himself into his work in the museum with gusto, despite set-backs. In 1882 the Garden Palace, which housed the collection, was destroyed by fire. Maiden and his small staff started again. Although the museum was badly housed in a tin shed until moved to Ultimo in 1893, he made it a centre of applied scientific research and popular education. His regular afternoon lectures were well attended.

Interested in Australian flora and helped by the director of the Botanic Gardens Charles Moore and by Rev. William Woolls, Maiden quickly established himself as an expert in economic botany and encouraged research into the properties of Australian timbers and essential oils. He began writing on botanical subjects in 1887 and in 1889 published The Useful Native Plants of Australia. A smaller work, Wattles and Wattle-Barks, followed next year. In 1890 he was indignant when passed over for the position of botanist in the new Department of Agriculture. Next year he was appointed consulting botanist to the department's forestry division. Early in 1894 he became superintendent of technical education and in May 1896 director of the Botanic Gardens and government botanist.

Maiden was a small man with a trim beard and lively features. He had an exceptionally methodical mind and working habits and an easy fluency in writing and speaking. He rose early and did most of his writing before breakfast; evenings were taken up with meetings. He sought to make the gardens a centre for public education as well as recreation and aesthetic enjoyment. Supportive with regard to the working conditions of his staff, he delegated easily and in return won hard work and respect bordering on reverence. He produced regular and voluminous annual reports. His major achievement was the creation of the National Herbarium of New South Wales, with a museum and library, opened in March 1901. Most of his holidays were spent on collecting expeditions throughout Australia. In Europe in 1900 he visited botanical gardens, attended conferences, and returned with a collection of portraits of famous botanists to adorn the herbarium and nearly 600 botanical specimens collected by Banks in 1770 and hitherto stored in the British Museum.

Maiden continued his massive output of botanical research and publication. He maintained his interest in economic botany: the useful and the dangerous qualities of various plants. But this expanded into a taxonomic project: identification and classification of major Australian genera. His major works were A Critical Revision of the Genus Eucalyptus, appearing in over seventy parts from 1903, in which he recognized 366 species, and his Forest Flora of New South Wales, in seventy-seven parts from 1904. Many other books and articles for journals and newspapers flowed from his pen, occasionally in collaboration, including 45 papers in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 95 in the Proceedings of the local Linnean Society and over 100 in the Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales. He lectured at the university in forestry in 1913-21 and in agricultural botany in 1914-21. He encouraged farmers to use herbarium staff to identify grasses and bushes grazed by their stock.

A long-term council-member of many learned societies in Sydney, Maiden was president of the Linnean Society in 1901-02, the Royal Society in 1906 and 1911, the (Royal) Australian Historical Society in 1905 and 1907, the Horticultural Society in 1904-17, the Horticultural Association for eighteen years, and the Field Naturalists' Society. He was also secretary of the Geographical Society of Australasia in 1884-85 and the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in 1907-21, and a foundation member of the Australian National Research Council in 1919. He published articles on early botanists and on the history of the Botanic Gardens, including a life of Banks in 1909. A corresponding member of societies in the United States of America, France, Switzerland, Chile, Algeria and Czechoslovakia, Maiden was always willing to provide seeds, specimens and information. He was, for example, an honorary member of the Netherlands Society for the Promotion of Industry and a fellow of the Linnean, Chemical, Royal Geographical and Royal Horticultural societies of London.

Awarded the gold medal of the Linnean Society of London in 1915, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and appointed I.S.O. in 1916. He also received the A.A.A.S.'s Mueller medal (1922) and the local Royal Society's (W.B.) Clarke memorial medal (1924). His name is commemorated in two generic, thirty-five specific and three infra-specific botanical names.

Active in the movement to retain large areas of native forests, Maiden also published important work on the use of plants to stabilize sand drift and on the essential role of trees in flood mitigation. A leading member of an important group of urban improvers, he ardently advocated more parks and trees to soften urban landscapes, dispatching thousands of seeds and cuttings from the gardens to local councils and schools. He wanted protection for trees endangered by urban development, and popularized the palms which became a feature of Edwardian Sydney. As well as the Botanic Gardens, the State nursery and several vice-regal residences, Maiden was in charge of the Outer Domain and Centennial Park. He fought hard (not always successfully) to make and maintain his various domains safe for public perambulation, day and night. In 1909 he helped to found Wattle Day 'with the view of stimulating Australian national sentiment'. For many years he was president of the State branch of the Australian Wattle League and in 1922 was elected national president.

Maiden retired in 1924 and moved to Turramurra. He had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis following an accident while collecting in 1911, but he continued to work at a prodigious rate and his wit still sparkled. He was an active Anglican. He died of heart disease on 16 November 1925 at Turramurra and was buried in St John's Anglican cemetery, Gordon. His wife and four daughters survived him; his only son had been lost at sea twenty years earlier. Funds were collected to erect a memorial pavilion in the Botanic Gardens. His portrait (1916) by Norman Carter is held by the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Roe (ed), Twentieth Century Sydney (Syd, 1980)
  • Public Service Journal (New South Wales), 9 Feb 1901, 10 June 1915, 15 Nov 1924
  • Australasian Journal of Pharmacy, 1 June 1924
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 51 (1926), 55 (1930)
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Journal and Proceedings, 60 (1926)
  • Sydney Mail, 20 June 1891
  • Town and Country Journal, 23 May 1896
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Nov 1925
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 28 Nov 1925
  • J. H. Maiden papers (Royal Botanic Gardens Library, Sydney).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mark Lyons and C. J. Pettigrew, 'Maiden, Joseph Henry (1859–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 April, 1859
London, Middlesex, England


16 November, 1925 (aged 66)
Turramurra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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