Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Joseph Milligan (1807–1884)

by W. G. Hoddinott

This article was published:

Joseph Milligan (1807-1884), surgeon, was born in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. He obtained the diploma of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in January 1829 and in June 1830 was appointed surgeon to the Van Diemen's Land Co.'s establishment at Surrey Hills, where he arrived in February 1831. During his appointment as surgeon, and later surgeon-superintendent, he became interested in the natural history of the island, formed a close acquaintance with R. C. Gunn and collected specimens for W. J. Hooker.

In 1842 he left the company in February and settled briefly in Launceston. He was invited by Lady Franklin to accompany the overland expedition to Macquarie Harbour from March to May as medical attendant and naturalist. After his return he held a number of important government positions. In September he became inspector of convict discipline and member of the Board for Distributing Convicts. In March 1843 he married Eliza, second daughter of William Effingham Lawrence of Launceston. She died on Flinders Island on 31 July 1844 after giving birth to a son.

In December 1843 he was appointed superintendent and medical officer of the Aboriginals, a position which he occupied until 1855 except for the period April 1846 to May 1847 when he was visiting magistrate and medical officer at the short-lived second penal settlement at Macquarie Harbour. In October 1847 he supervised the transfer of the Aboriginal settlement, then totalling forty-six persons, from Flinders Island to Oyster Cove, where the numbers dwindled rapidly until in 1854 only sixteen remained. During this period of duty he compiled an extensive 'Vocabulary of the Dialects of Some of the Aboriginal Tribes of Tasmania' (Royal Society of Tasmania, Papers, 1859), with observations on native languages and customs.

Through his interest in natural history he became secretary of the Royal Society of Van Diemen's Land in 1848-60, its members and activities increasing under his guidance. In 1848 at Lieutenant-Governor Denison's request he surveyed the coal resources of the island and in April 1855 became chairman of the Douglas River Coal Mining Co. In 1856 he explored the eastern slopes of the western mountains for the Fingal Gold Exploration Co.

He was retired from government service with a pension in April 1860, and in June sailed for England with his son on eighteen months leave from the Royal Society. He did not return but at the exhibition of 1862 acted as commissioner for Tasmania. He died in London in 1884 leaving £350 as well as land at George Town and Bicheno to the Royal Society of Tasmania.

Milligan's thirty years in Tasmania were marked by immense industry. His official duties were carried out with conscientiousness and good sense. J. D. Hooker called him 'one of the most indefatigable and able of Tasmanian botanists' and gave his name to the native lily genus Milligania and a number of species of other plants. He was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1850. As a geologist he carried out surveys in all parts of the colony, discovering coal, copper and gold as well as numerous fossils. But perhaps his most notable work was his study of Aboriginal languages. This permanent contribution to knowledge, although not free from error, was a remarkable achievement for a man who was said to be unacquainted with any language but English.

Select Bibliography

  • E. M. Curr, The Australian Race, vol 3 (Melb, 1887)
  • A. Morton, Register of Papers Published in the Tasmanian Journal and the Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania (Hob, 1887)
  • W. Schmidt, Die Tasmanischen Sprachen (Utrecht, 1952)
  • T. E. Burns and J. R. Skemp, Van Diemen's Land Correspondents (Launceston, 1961)
  • E. L. Piesse, ‘The Foundation and Early Work of the Society’, Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, 1913, pp 117-66
  • correspondence file under Joseph Milligan (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

W. G. Hoddinott, 'Milligan, Joseph (1807–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 20 July 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

Joseph Milligan (1807-1884), by L. Bimstinol

Joseph Milligan (1807-1884), by L. Bimstinol

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125882993

Life Summary [details]


Dumfriesshire, Scotland


1884 (aged ~ 77)
London, Middlesex, England

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.