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Oswald Hewlett Sargent (1880–1952)

by Neville G. Marchant

This article was published:

Oswald Hewlett Sargent (1880-1952), pharmacist and amateur botanist, was born on 5 December 1880 at Selly Oak near Birmingham, England, son of Obeithio Sargent, photographer and pharmacist, and his wife Mary Ann, née Lewis. With his parents and two sisters Oswald migrated to Western Australia in 1886. Obeithio established a pharmacy at York where he trained his son. Oswald attended Perth Technical School, under the direction of the accomplished amateur botanist Cecil R. P. Andrews. One of the lecturers was Alexander Purdie (1859-1905), a keen amateur botanist and orchidologist, who encouraged Oswald's botanical exploits. He passed his final pharmacy examination in 1902, winning the first Webster Memorial gold medal.

Sargent contributed significantly to knowledge of Western Australian plants by publishing newspaper articles and papers in scientific journals. He collected many plant specimens and curated his own herbarium. When the 84th annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science met in Perth in 1914, Sargent was recognized as an authority on Western Australian orchids. A keen field-worker, he guided many eminent botanist visitors; his stamina astonished them for he was only as tall as a small boy.

After his father's death in 1916 Sargent inherited the pharmacy. From then he gave up hope of attending the new University of Western Australia because, as eldest child, he felt responsible for his mother and sisters. He moved to Perth in 1925 after marrying Gertrude Victoria Onions, also a pharmacist, on 12 February. In 1924 he had joined the newly formed Western Australian Naturalists' Club and was vice-president (1925) and president (1928-29, 1931-32). He alienated many members by his obstinacy when introducing unpopular policies and later resigned. His pharmacies in Perth, and later at suburban Claremont, were unsuccessful and in 1934 he returned to York.

An early disappointment concerned the discovery of the Underground Orchid, Rhizanthella gardneri. Sargent's hopes of fame from naming it were dashed because the specimens which were to be sent to him were forwarded instead to the South Australian orchidologist Richard Rogers; the new genus was described in 1928. At York Sargent could devote more time to botany. His wife ran the chemist shop while he collected and experimented. He tried unsuccessfully to grow native orchids from seed, a project funded by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. He planned to write a flora of Western Australia and encouraged schoolchildren throughout the State to send him specimens; his collections grew to unmanageable proportions. Eventually they were bundled together and sent, mostly unmounted and unsorted, to the Western Australian Museum where they were deemed worthless. His own well-curated collection ultimately passed to the Western Australian Herbarium.

The early promise of Sargent's botanical career was never fulfilled. His memorial was his nine published papers, the nine species of plants he named and the three named in his honour. He died at Claremont on 4 March 1952, survived by his wife and son, and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • Western Australian Naturalist, 4, 1953, p 41.

Citation details

Neville G. Marchant, 'Sargent, Oswald Hewlett (1880–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 5 March 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

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