by Denise Sutherland
"I am in the middle of breaking camp and travelling further north to Makay [sic]... You would not believe what it looks like here! Birds, marsupials, shells, corals, insects and plants. A lot is still waiting to be skinned and preserved, through this all kinds of living animals are scrambling around between my feet. I still have to look through the plants, you know that when the stalks are not dry they go mouldy, and they have to make a long trip! My fingers are itching to work..."(1)
Amalie Dietrich was a rare woman - a German naturalist who brought Australia's natural wonders to Europe, and spent nearly ten years (1863-1872) in the barely settled wilds of northern Queensland. She collected for the Museum Godeffroy in Hamburg, Germany. 26th May 1996 marked the 175th anniversary of her birth.
Amalie was born into a middle-class family, and learnt collecting techniques from her mother and, later, her husband. She became well known for the excellence of her work in Germany. After her marriage broke up, she was faced with having to support her daughter Charitas alone.
Shipping magnate Johann Caesar VI Godeffroy (1818-1885) offered her a job as a collector in Australia. He had ships travelling regularly to the South Pacific, and decided to start a museum stocked with the ethnographic and biological items from these unexplored places. In a male-dominated field, Amalie was an unusual choice. Apart from being a woman, she had no academic qualifications and was middle-aged !
She arrived at Moreton Bay on 7 August 1863. Travelling around the wild bush in her horse & cart to carry her equipment and provisions, with a small boat, she was a strange, solitary figure. She worked around Brisbane, Gladstone, Rockhampton, Mackay, Lake Elphonstone, and Bowen.
Botany was Amalie's greatest love, but anything living was fair game - her collections included fungi, algae, ferns, seaweeds, grasses, tree woods, sea-slugs, fish, corals, birds, marsupials, spiders, insects, amphibians and reptiles. Little daunted her - she was the first person to collect a taipan snake.
Dietrich was also asked to collect Aboriginal artifacts, skulls, skins and skeletons! In the late 1800's most scientists believed that people like the Aboriginals were Darwin's "missing link", more animal than human. She did send at least eight skeletons, one skull and one tanned "pelt" to the Museum.
After collecting, she would start the intensive work of preparation, drying, pressing, skinning, preserving, labelling and packaging all her samples for shipment back to Germany. She collected 30-40 items of each species, so there was a lot of work. Godeffroy kept the best for his own museum, and sold the extras to European museums and scientists.
Australian specimens were still rare in Europe, and Amalie's shipments were eagerly awaited by the scientists. At last they were able to fully study and classify the entirely new flora and fauna of Australia. They were indebted to Dietrich, and praised her work and bravery. She won awards, and several species were named after her.
Dietrich was recalled to Germany in late 1872. As a field collector, Dietrich published nothing in her own name, and there remain only a few footnotes in scientific papers referring to her work. However, the real triumph of her life - her collections - remain in museums around Europe, a fitting memorial to such an accomplished naturalist.
For more information, go to the Bright Sparcs Amalie Dietrich Exhibition.
(1) Ray Sumner, A Woman in the Wilderness, The Story of Amalie Dietrich in Australia, NSW University Press, Kensington, 1993 : Letter from Amalie Dietrich to her daughter Charitas Bischoff, Letter 4, Rockhampton 2 February 1866.