In nineteenth century NSW, an interest in the natural sciences was the preserve of ‘gentlemen’ – pastoralists, merchants and professionals (clergymen, lawyers and doctors). There were few who were scientists as we would understand the term today. The gentlemen were enthusiastic amateurs, who read widely, and sometimes conducted original research and published papers. They also felt a responsibility to ensure that scientific information was distributed through the community.
However, some women played crucial roles in the background, collecting information about the natural world that led to increased knowledge and understanding of Australian flora and fauna. Their role in illustrating these previously un-documented species was particularly important, although most played no active role in protecting the species from threat.
Elizabeth Coxen was employed as a governess before marrying John Gould in England in 1829. John Gould was a scientist and one of the first to express public concern about the danger of extinction of Australia’s large mammals. John encouraged his wife to learn the new printing method of lithography. Working from her husband’s sketches, Elizabeth drew birds onto slabs of limestone. She developed her skills with the help of Edward Lear, the famous nonsense poet, the eventual publication becoming Birds of the Himalayas.
Elizabeth travelled to Australia with John between 1838 and 1840. A year after their Australian tour, Elizabeth died of puerperal fever, having given birth for the eighth time. Eight years later, their work – Birds of Australia – was published.
During 12 years of marriage Elizabeth produced more than 600 lithographic plates, raised six surviving children, and circumnavigated the world.
John and Elizabeth’s work was rediscovered in the 1900s, and their name given to the Gould League of Bird Lovers, which was founded in Victoria in 1909 and then spread throughout Australia.
Comments welcome. I’m very happy to be corrected on anything above.
I’d be very interested in any information or stories about Elizabeth which contribute to our thoughts on women and leadership.
References and further reading
Photograph from Wikipedia
Australian Museum website http://australianmuseum.net.au/Elizabeth-Gould-1804-1841
Peter Tyler ‘Science for Gentlemen – The Royal Society of New South Wales in the Nineteenth Century. Paper delivered 1181st General Monthly Meeting of the Royal Society of NSW, 2 June 2010.http://royalsoc.org.au/talks_2010/talk_June2010.html
Drew Hutton and Libby Connors. 1999. A history of the Australian environment movement. Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press, p 29.