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Amalie Dietrich project
Australia / Germany Educational Development Fellowship 2008: The Australian botanical collections of 19th Century German naturalist Amalie Dietrich
Hannah McPherson - Biodiversity Research Officer
From December 2008 to April 2009 Hannah McPherson conducted a research and curation project at the Herbarium Hamburgense on the botanical collections of Amalie Dietrich (1821-1891). Amalie Dietrich is an important figure in German and Australian botanical history, who in 1863 was commissioned by the wealthy shipping merchant, Johann Cesar VI Godeffroy to voyage from Hamburg to Australia to collect specimens for the newly established Museum Godeffroy. For nine years Dietrich collected extensively around the sometimes harsh and often remote landscapes of colonial Queensland. In an era when science and exploration were dominated by well-educated, wealthy men, Dietrich - a working class woman from provincial Saxony with little formal education - was not the obvious choice for the voyage.
Many of the earliest botanical specimens from Australia are housed in European herbaria since they were collected by European explorers. Dietrich was a prolific natural history collector with a great passion for botany. Her botanical collections (more than 20,000 in total) which were shipped regularly to the Museum Godeffroy in Hamburg, constitute the first records of many Australian species. They provide a unique record of the Australian flora prior to land-clearing for expanding agriculture and urbanisation.
The most complete set of Dietrich’s botanical specimens was sent to the Botanical Museum in Hamburg when the Godeffroy Museum was closed for financial reasons in 1868, and form the basis of the current Herbarium Hamburgense. Several botanists have accessed them in the past. For example, Karel Domin from Prague used the specimens to circumscribe many new taxa, resulting in the publication of some important early taxonomic works for the Australian flora. Nevertheless, many of Amalie’s specimens remained virtually untouched for a century and a half.
Efforts have been made in the past to catalogue them but serious curatorial work has been intermittent. The aims of this fellowship project were to conduct a botanical and curatorial project on the collections of Amalie Dietrich, and to gain further insights into the life and botanical career of this remarkable woman.
Over three months the project focused on the unidentified material which had not yet been incorporated into the main herbarium collection in Hamburg. This involved sorting specimens; recording collecting information and original handwriting in a new database; updating nomenclature and verifying original and duplicate specimens. By the end of the project most of the unincorporated Amalie Dietrich specimens (about 15% of her total collection) had been assessed.
Taxonomy and nomenclature were updated for all and all boxes of unincorporated specimens were labeled with the stage of processing and the next steps required for their curation. The database will be used to populate the main Hamburg herbarium database and to produce labels for original and duplicate specimens. A curation plan is now in place which will allow duplicate specimens to be sent to Australia for identification and incorporation into Australian herbarium collections. Ongoing collaboration with Herbarium Hamburgense will ensure longevity of the collection and exchange of information between Australian and German botanists.
Many thanks to the Australia Germany Association Inc. in conjunction with the Goethe Institut and Lufthansa who funded this project.