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Taking it to the edge: did you know? Ferdinand von Mueller and the exploration of Australia

''About three miles before we reached the camp Dr. Mueller had fallen some distance behind the party; but as this was a frequent occurrence in collecting botanical specimens, it was not observed … [he] requires stronger horses than any other person in the party, having knocked up four since January, …''
AC Gregory 29 July 1856 Journals of Australian explorations Brisbane, James C. Beal, 1884 page 163

Ferdinand von Mueller, the renowned botanist, covered nearly 30,000 miles in the course of his botanical collecting in Australia. He maintained a high interest in the exploration of Australia, including serving as the botanist on Augustus Gregory's North Australian expedition of 1855. However his services to Australian exploration were not confined to his own efforts. He was actively involved in the committee of the Royal Society of Victoria which organized the Burke and Wills Expedition. Mueller wanted his old leader Augustus Gregory to lead the expedition, but when he declined the offer, Mueller cast his vote for Peter Egerton Warburton -again he was unsuccessful. Undaunted, he still provided valuable assistance to the expedition and later to the search parties.

In 1865 he urged the ladies of Australia to fund a search for the long-lost explorer Ludwig Leichhardt.  Mueller had not relinquished hope of finding traces of the explorer. Mueller was largely responsible for equipping Ernest Giles's expeditions in the 1870s. Giles tried to repay this support by naming a lake and a mountain after Mueller. However von Mueller insisted on renaming them - Lake Amadeus and Mt Olga (Kata Tjuta).  WH Tietkens served as botanist with Giles in 1876 and was given his practical training by Mueller himself. Ernest Giles fully acknowledged Mueller's sponsorship calling him "my most excellent friend". 

Mueller's interest in the exploration of South Australia encouraged further exploration - William Gosse was sent out by the South Australian government and Thomas Elder financed Peter Warburton.

Von Mueller was a founding member of the Geographical Society of Australasia (Victorian Branch) and actively encouraged, indeed urged, the formation of a branch in South Australia. In due course his first friend in Adelaide, Samuel Davenport, was elected President in 1885.

As the blanks on the Australian map were filled in, von Mueller advocated exploration in New Guinea, the Pacific Islands and the Antarctic. He was the main force behind the organization of the Australian Antarctic Committee which represented the Royal Society and Geographical Society of Victoria. The Committee, negotiated with AE Nordenskiold to send an expedition south - after a number of postponements the Swedish offer of funds was withdrawn and the Norwegian Svend Foyn sent his ship Antarctic captained by Leonard Kristensen, to South Victoria Land in response to Mueller's urging. Cape Adare and the Possession Islands were explored, and a landing made in South Victoria Land. In the account of this expedition, The cruise of the Antarctic in the South Polar Regions, London, 1896, HJ Bull recounts that only a few names were given to landmarks - 'Cape von Mueller to the east cape of Possession Island, in honour of the world-famed botanist of that name, and to commemorate the valuable find of lichen in this island'. Small as the expedition was, it led to a revival of interest in exploration of the Antarctic - the British would begin planning for what became Robert Falcon Scott's first expedition to the Antarctic and in 1911 Douglas Mawson would lead the first Australian expedition to the polar regions. Von Mueller would have approved of these efforts.

Further reading:

Daley, Charles. Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, K.C.M.G., M.D., F.R.S. botanist, explorer and geographer, Melbourne, 1924.

Kynaston, Edward. A man on edge: a life of Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, Ringwood, 1981.

Peake-Jones, Kenneth. The Branch without a tree, Adelaide, 1985.

Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller
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