John Gilbert (naturalist)

John Gilbert (14 Mar 1812 – 28 June 1845) was an English naturalist and explorer.

John was born in Clerkenwell, London and was christened on the 25th of October 1812 as Spa Fields Lady Huntingdons, Clerkenwell London. His father was William and his mother Ann.

Gilbert was a taxidermist for the Zoological Society of London, where he met John Gould. Gould recruited Gilbert, four years his junior, to work at the Zoological Society. But 18 months later, John Gilbert was sacked for being absent without leave. Evidently, John Gould did not speak up on behalf of Gilbert.

He travelled to Australia in 1838 with the Goulds, and their young nephew Henry William Coxen, Gould paid Gilbert 100 pounds per annum plus expenses, but Gilbert was expected to account meticulously for every penny and to keep his expenses as small as possible.Gould and Gilbert reached Hobart on the Parsee on 19 September 1838. Both worked in Tasmania for a few months. The party landed in Hobart in September and in January Gilbert and Gould travelled overland together to Launceston. Suddenly, Gould decided they should separate, and sent Gilbert off on 4 February 1839 Gilbert to the Swan River settlement, assuring him that he would look after all his personal possessions then still in Hobart. Gilbert was instructed to collect as many specimens as possible, then meet up with Gould again in Sydney, where Gould would wait for him until the end of April the following year. He worked there, mostly in the vicinity of Perth, gathering specimens for Gould for 11 months.

Meanwhile, Gould returned to Hobart where his wife Elizabeth awaited him. They lived in style with their servants in Government House. Taking one servant with him, Gould visited New South Wales and was made welcome by various wealthy landowners such as his wifes family, the Coxens. He returned to Hobart just in time for the birth of his seventh child (a son they named Franklin Tasman). Almost immediately Gould set off again, this time for South Australia, where he met the Governor and accompanied Stuart on his expedition to the Murray Scrubs When he returned to Hobart, the Goulds travelled together to New South Wales where Elizabeth's brothers lived. Gould had a wonderful time collecting birds and beasts. There was no one to instruct him to husband his resources. Gould decided that they should all return to England. They left on 9th April. Gilbert arrived in Sydney on 30th April to find his employer gone. To rub salt into his wounds, his trunk had been ransacked and many of the possessions Gould had promised to protect had been stolen. Gilbert provided Gould with thousands of specimens of every description, from quadrupeds to insects, from shells to crustacea, from plants to reptiles, but mainly and most importantly, birds and eggs. Gilbert provided Gould with over 60 new species of birds. Gilbert travelled by boat to Port Essington, north of where Darwin is today. There he collected, amongst many other things, a beautiful new finch. He took it home to Gould in England. He found his employer mourning his wife, Elizabeth, who had died after the birth of their eighth child. She was just 37. Gould named the finch after his wife. So Elizabeth is remembered today in this gorgeous little bird, called not Elizabeth's Finch, as you might think, but more cryptically, the Gouldian Finch. As Elizabeth was the illustrator of all the works, not her husband, Gould then needed to recruit other artists to finish the work that Elizabeth had tirelessly begun.

Gilbert soon returned to Australia to collect again for Gould. He discovered the Paradise Parrot and thought it 'without exception the most beautiful of the whole tribe I have ever yet seen in Australia.' He begged Gould to name it after him, saying, 'I know of no species that would delight me more to see Gilbertii attached to than this beautiful bird.' Gould declined, saying he didn't like naming species after people, and anyway, he'd just recently named another species after him. That was Gilbert's Whistler. Apparently Gould saw no contradiction in this explanation. Sadly the Paradise Parrot is now extinct, but Gilbert is remembered in the Gilbert's Whistler. Far better to be remembered in a living whistler than an extinct parrot. Some English writers who have never seen or heard this whistler, make much of the fact that it belongs to the group of birds called 'thickheads.' They just show their ignorance. Gilbert's Whistler is, without doubt, one of our most glorious songsters and, I believe, one of the most beautiful.

There is some irony in the fact that naming the Gilbert's Whistler was one of Gould's rare ornithological mistakes. He had already named the eastern race of the same bird calling it the 'unadorned thickhead', perhaps giving some indication of what he thought of the bird! By convention the first name stands, so today the scientific name is Pachycephalia inornata. But while, technically speaking, the name Gilbert's Whistler refers just to the western race of the bird, the name is used universally today for the species. Gould also honoured Gilbert when naming two animals that Gilbert had collected for him from the dense heath in the south-west of Western Australia. Gilbert's Dunnart and Gilbert's potoroo. So Gilbert's name lives on in one beautiful Australian songbird and two cute little creatures, both pretty rare. Gould's name, on the other hand, is attached to numerous birds and beasts all over the world.

Gilbert collected specimens of 432 birds, including 36 species new to Western Australia, and 318 mammals, including 22 species not previously known in the west. By the end of January 1844 he was back in Sydney and during the next six months worked his way to the Darling Downs in Queensland. The Coxen family who settled the Darling Downs region, were related by marriage, Gould's wife Elizabeth (nee Coxen) was sister to Charles and Stephen, aunt to Henry William Coxen. The families allowed Gould and Gilbert to stay on their properties to collect fauna and flora of the district.

While Gilbert was considering which part of the continent should next be investigated Ludwig Leichhardt arrived with the other members of his expedition to Port Essington, and Gilbert was allowed to join the party in September 1844. In November it was decided that the party was too large for the amount of provisions they had with them, and Leichhardt ruled that the two who had joined last should return. Eventually, however, it was decided that Hodgson and Caleb should return, and Gilbert remained to become later on practically the second in command of the expedition. One member of the party, a boy of 16, was too young to be of much use and the leader's treatment of the two aboriginal members of the party was lacking in tact and consideration. A good deal of responsibility therefore fell upon Gilbert, who was the best bushman of a very mixed company. The progress made for several months was much less than was anticipated and by May 1845 supplies of food were running very short. Unfortunately, on 28 June 1845 near the Gulf of Carpentaria, Gilbert was killed by a flying spear when natives made a night attack on the expedition's camp, because some of their women had been molested by the two Aboriginals with the Leichhardt party. There still exists some controversy over his death - the wound was apparently smaller than a spear and some suggest he died from accidental shooting by one of his companions. He was buried on the spot, a tree nearby was marked, and a fire was lit over the disturbed earth in order to screen the grave; this, although much searched for, has not since been found. Other members of the expedition received several spear thrusts but recovered. Leichhardt then turned south-westerly, skirting the gulf for a while, and reached Port Essington almost exhausted in December 1845. Leichhardt preserved Gilbert's papers and his diary, which, however, was lost for nearly 100 years before its discovery by A. H. Chisholm. Almost everything that is known about Gilbert we owe to Chisholm's researches, which show Gilbert as a man of much ability and fine character who somewhat ironically had a great respect for the aboriginals. There is a memorial to him in St James church, Sydney. The Gilbert-Einasleigh River is named after him, as is Gilbert's Potoroo (Potorous gilberti).

Jonh Gilberts memorial at St James church in Sydney is inscribed with the following Latin phrase "Dulce et decorum est pro scientia mori" which is translated as "it is sweet and fitting to die for science."

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