Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robert Henry Pulleine (1869–1935)

by Neville Hicks and Helen McIntosh

This article was published:

Robert Henry Pulleine (1869-1935), physician and naturalist, was born on 7 June 1869 at Picton, Marlborough, New Zealand, son of Frederick Arthur Pulleine, later first registrar of the South Australian School of Mines and Industries, and his wife Lucy Jane, née Butt. His childhood was spent in Fiji. The family moved to Adelaide in 1881 and Robert attended the Collegiate School of St Peter before working at the Public Library of South Australia in 1885-87; in the neighbouring South Australian Museum he developed his interest in natural science. At 17 Pulleine discovered three new shells including Chlamys pulleineanus. He taught at the Adelaide Collegiate School before entering the University of Adelaide in 1892, completing his medical training at the University of Sydney Medical School (M.B., Ch.M., 1898) and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. On 22 March 1899 he married Ethel Constance Louise Cunningham Williams of Adelaide at Beaudesert, Queensland.

From 1900 Pulleine worked at the Queensland gold-mining town of Gympie where his patients included Andrew Fisher, a good friend. Pulleine took his family to Göttingen, Germany, in 1905 to study diseases of the eye, ear, nose and throat. After further study in Britain, he returned in 1907 to Adelaide to become a highly respected consultant in these diseases. Pulleine's practice supported his naturalist interests, particularly the importing of cacti seeds and plants and collecting trips to Tasmania and Central Australia. His valuable collection of books, Aboriginal artefacts and paintings were housed in a twenty-two-room, bluestone home with five acres (2 ha) of garden at Netherby near Adelaide.

Pulleine developed a consuming interest in botany, anthropology, marine biology, history, entomology and, specifically, arachnology: his studies of the trapdoor spider drew the attention of scientists throughout the world. He was typical of the medical naturalist of his time; using the methods, framework and interests of the nineteenth century, he acknowledged their limitations. Pulleine published many medical and scientific pamphlets and articles, overseas and in Australia.

He belonged to eighteen learned societies, ranging from the American Cactus Society to the Linnean Society of London, and including the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia and the Royal and Anthropological societies of South Australia; he was president of six. His botanical interests were not merely antiquarian; he identified several new plant species in South Australia and exchanged specimens with horticulturalists overseas. Many of the specimens were cultivated in his garden, which had over one thousand succulents alone. He investigated arid zone plants, after propagation posting parcels of these to outback teachers to plant in school gardens. Pulleine discovered in the Gawler Ranges a new species of Mesembrianthemum, which J. M. Black named after him—Carpobrotus (Sarcozoma) pulleinei. Six other species of animals and plants were named for him.

Although interested in anthropometry, Pulleine lacked the grosser racism associated with it. In his pamphlet, Physiology and Mental Observations on the Australian Aborigines (Adelaide, 1930), he refuted contemporary publications degrading the Aborigine as unintelligent, with crude beliefs and repulsive practices, representing 'the most primitive type of man still existing'.

Pulleine was a tall, strong man with a moustache who read widely, sang, entertained, and was gentle and kindly but firm; he could appear forbidding. With his friend Archibald Watson he owned Walwa Private Hospital. Pulleine died there of pneumonia complicating diabetes mellitus on 13 June 1935, and was buried in Mitcham cemetery. His wife, son and four daughters survived him. Pulleine's extensive library and ethnographic collection were auctioned. Part of his collection had been exhibited at the South Australian Centennial Exhibition in 1936, and the South Australian Museum bought some of the Australian ethnologia. A large collection of Pulleine's Aboriginal ethnographic material had been sold to Scandinavia in the 1920s.

Select Bibliography

  • Medical Journal of Australia, 14 Sept, 1935
  • Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia: South Australian Branch, 36 (1934-35)
  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 59 (1935)
  • Punch (Melbourne), Dec 1923
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 14 June 1935.

Citation details

Neville Hicks and Helen McIntosh, 'Pulleine, Robert Henry (1869–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 16 June 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]


7 June, 1869
Picton, Marlborough, New Zealand


13 June, 1935 (aged 66)
South Australia, Australia

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