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William Blandowski’s fish

The first zoologist hired to develop collections for the then National Museum of Victoria was the controversial William Blandowski (1822–78).

A German, with interests and experience in natural history, Blandowski collected vigorously throughout Victoria. His best-known trip was a poorly planned expedition to the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers in 1856–57, during which five of his six assistants deserted him.

Although more than 17 000 specimens were collected, only about a third exist today in museums. Many specimens that required taxidermy in the field were destroyed by insects, others were kept by Blandowski himself, and still others were later exchanged. Blandowski resigned from the expedition after nine months in the field but did not report back to the museum.

Blandowski attempted to publish descriptions of species of fishes he had collected, naming several after prominent members of the council of the Philosophical Institute – later, The Royal Society of Victoria. Blandowski’s motivation for recognising the council members was apparent in uncomplimentary descriptions accompanying his accounts of purported new species. Brosmius bleasdalii, named after the Reverend Mr Bleasdale, was described as a ‘slimy, slippery fish’ that ‘lives in the mud’, while Cernua eadesii, ‘honouring’ Dr Eades, was portrayed as ‘a fish easily recognized by its low forehead, big belly and sharp spine’.

Public objections from council members resulted in the removal of the article from the issue prior to its binding. The scandal forced Blandowski to return to Hamburg, taking with him notes, drawings and many of the specimens from the expedition. There, he protested his unfair treatment in the colony.

Blandowski's encampment on the Lower Murray River
 William Blandowski’s Cernua eadesii proposed in 1858

 William Blandowski, self-portrait, 1860

 Blandowski's encampment on the Lower Murray River

 Silver Perch (Bidyanus bidyanus)
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Blandowski's encampment on the Lower Murray River, etching, Illustrated Melbourne News, 6 February 1858 Image source: Museum Victoria

© Museum Victoria Australia