Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Johann Menge (1788–1852)

by D. Van Abbè

This article was published:

Johann Menge (1788-1852), geologist and linguist, was born on 4 January 1788 at Steinau, Hesse, Germany, the fifth of six sons of Nicholas Menge, a poor wheelwright, and his wife Anna Margaret, née Schmittin. He had little formal education after 13, but as a prodigy he soon became a private tutor on a near-by manor. At 17 he was engaged as a technical assistant by Privy Councillor Carl Cäsar von Leonhard, a lawyer of Hanau who collected and sold geological specimens. Quick to realize his technician's ability, Leonhard soon made him an associate in the business. Menge made a name for himself with papers on geognosy and fossils, and was elected a corresponding member of several learned societies. When Leonhard was called to the chair of geology at Munich in 1816 Menge began the travels that took him as far afield as Iceland and Siberia. Geology, however, was not his only love. At his base in Lübeck he came under the influence of the evangelist, Dr J. Geibel, who infected him with a passion for holy writ and faith in God to supply his worldly needs. At the same time he developed an amazing gift of tongues, mastering an encyclopaedic collection of languages. Legend had him offered an honorary professorship at Lübeck and a chair of Hebrew at Oxford. His most treasured possessions were polyglot Bibles and lexicons. At Lübeck he began publishing religious expositions of Hebraic oral tradition, a curious blend of linguistic science and mystical theology.

Menge married in 1810 and had three sons who later became Anglican missionaries in India. When his wife died in 1830 he moved to England where he taught languages, worked for the British and Foreign Bible Society as a translator and prepared a Chinese dictionary. In August 1836 he was engaged by the South Australian Co. as mine and quarry agent at £150 a year. At Kangaroo Island his eccentric ways made him an uncomfortable colleague and he was dismissed from the company in June 1838. He remained in the province, and by frequent excursions gained a curious knowledge of soils and minerals which, however exaggerated or ridiculous, was eagerly sought by land buyers and speculators with varying success. Menge rarely sought payment for his information and in 1840 even published his findings in Mineral Kingdom of South Australia. Once he refused an invitation to organize a mining company with British capital, because he was too busy planning a Chinese missionary college. His many other projects included the introduction of plant seedlings, intense interest in the Aboriginals, editorship of Adelaide's first German newspaper (1848), the use of irrigation and fertilisers, teaching Hebrew at the Lobethal Lutheran seminary, and the settlement of the Barossa Valley by German immigrants. A firm believer that all sickness derived from evil spirits, he tried to cure his own complaints by motion. One unusually long walk took him to the Victorian diggings in 1852; after notifying the lieutenant-governor of his arrival, he went to Forest Creek near Bendigo, where in the winter he died and was buried at the foot of a quartz hill.

Select Bibliography

  • F. S. Dutton, South Australia and its Mines (Lond, 1846)
  • W. A. Cawthorne, Menge the Mineralogist (Adel, 1859)
  • Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, vol 21 (Leipzig, 1885)
  • W. Prasent, ‘Johannes Menge, ein Steinauer Naturforscher’, Unsere Heimat, 1927
  • Observer (Adelaide), Feb-May 1844
  • D. Van Abbé, ‘Science and the Humanities, and A German Eccentric in South Australia, 1836-1852’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 10, no 39, Nov 1962, pp 357-65
  • L. A. Triebel, Outline Biography of Menge from Material in the Angas papers (German Dept, University of Adelaide).

Citation details

D. Van Abbè, 'Menge, Johann (1788–1852)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Menge, Johannes

4 January, 1788
Steinau, Hesse, Germany


1852 (aged ~ 63)
Forest Creek, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.