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.

Theodore George Bentley Osborn (1887–1973)

by Rutherford Robertson

This article was published:

Theodore George Bentley Osborn (1887-1973), botanist, ecologist and academic, was born on 2 October 1887 at Great Clacton, Essex, England, son of John Ashton Osborn, schoolmaster, and his wife Harriet Mary, née Andrew. After the family settled in Lancashire, Osborn attended Burnley Grammar School. In 1905 he went to the Victoria University of Manchester on a scholarship, and won first-class honours in botany (B.Sc., 1908). He became a lecturer in economic botany at Manchester (M.Sc., 1911; D.Sc., 1920).

In 1912 Osborn was appointed first professor of botany, vegetable pathology and parasitology at the University of Adelaide. On 17 July he married Edith May Kershaw, also a Manchester M.Sc. (1908), at Saddleworth, Yorkshire; they had three sons. With his wife's collaboration, he established a department in Adelaide with a high reputation. He was also botanical consultant to the South Australian government. Though Osborn's early papers had been on fungi, he worked on a variety of botanical problems. He saw that the developing discipline of plant ecology should be applied to Australian vegetation, and began work on the forests of the Adelaide hills. The dangers of over-grazing in arid regions were not then understood; saltbush and bluebush plains were in danger of becoming plantless deserts. Osborn applied his ecological ideas to these questions and in 1926, with the help of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and some pastoralists, he established the Koonamore Vegetation Reserve about 240 miles (386 km) north-east of Adelaide, where the average, but very unreliable, annual rainfall is only eight inches (203 mm). Research and teaching at that station still continues. In 1920 he had done field work in Africa.

In 1926 the C.S.I.R. invited Osborn to investigate the botanical sciences in Australia. Council members so admired his work that two years later they invited him to take charge of the C.S.I.R.'s division of plant industry. Osborn chose to accept the chair of botany at the University of Sydney instead. He became increasingly interested in the coastal vegetation of New South Wales and his new ideas enhanced the school's reputation. Osborn was dean of the faculty of science in 1930-33 and a fellow of the university senate from 1931.

In 1937 he became Sherardian professor of botany at the University of Oxford where he was elected fellow of Magdalen College and admitted to the degree of M.A. Partly due to World War II, Osborn was less active in research; but his improvements included moving the department from old premises at the Botanic Garden to a new building. He undertook much advisory work during the war for the government, was chairman of the National Institute for Research in Agricultural Botany, a member of the Agricultural Research Council, and of the governing bodies of various research institutions.

On retiring in 1953 as emeritus professor, Osborn returned to Australia and, except for a short period in Melbourne, lived in Adelaide. In 1958 he was awarded the Clarke medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales. That year his wife died and in England on 8 October 1960 he married Marjorie Hope Sabine, secretary. He lectured and continued his research in Adelaide until about 1960, visiting the department almost daily. On the fiftieth anniversary of the botany department in 1962 the university designated him emeritus professor.

Osborn's Australian studies were innovative. They had been reported in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, of which he was president in 1925, and the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales (president, 1932). His administrative contributions to scientific developments were important, but his teaching had more lasting influence. An inspiring lecturer and revered leader, he drew young men and women to botany. His obituary in Nature lists some of his distinguished Australian students.

Osborn was a well-read, scholarly man, a good conversationalist always interested in new ideas. A devout Anglican, he helped to found St Mark's College at the University of Adelaide and, while living there after his first wife's death, was acting master in 1959. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died on 3 June 1973. As he wished, his ashes were buried on the T. G. B. Osborn Vegetation Reserve at Koonamore.

Select Bibliography

  • Nature (London), 244, no 5415, Aug 1973, p 377
  • Search (Sydney), 4, no 11-12, Nov 1973, p 455
  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 97, pt 4, 1973, and for bibliography
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Oct 1927
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 6 June 1973, p 20
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 June 1973
  • family papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Rutherford Robertson, 'Osborn, Theodore George Bentley (1887–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 October, 1887
Great Clacton, Essex, England


3 June, 1973 (aged 85)

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.

Religious Influence

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.