Out of a job on a wing and a chair
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
Usually when someone loses their job, they are escorted to the door and given some semblance of a dignified goodbye. This was not the case for legendary paleontologist and museum curator Gerard Krefft when he was manhandled out the door of the Australian Museum.
In actual fact, he was carried out on his chair after he barricaded himself in the building, to avoid such an indignity. But how did it come to that?
He was born Johann Louis Gerhard Krefft in the Duchy of Brunswick, Germany on February 7, 1830 to William Krefft, a confectioner and his wife Johanna (nee Buschhoff). Educated at St Martin's College, Brunswick, Gerard was keen on art and painting, but was employed in a mercantile house before emigrating to New York in 1850.
Two years later he arrived on Australian shores working in the Victorian goldfields for a number of years. His talent as an artist and draughtsman kept him employed with the National Museum of Victoria where he sketched specimens collected from an expedition to the Murray and Darling Rivers between 1856-57. By 1858 he was appointed to the National Museum to catalogue the same specimens.
Gerard's reputation was becoming well known and in 1860 he was appointed assistant curator of the Australian Museum in Sydney, on the recommendation of Governor Sir William Denison. Only four years later he was appointed Director.
Gerard published a number of books on the topic of Australian animals including:
Catalogue of Mammalia in the Collection of the Australian Museum (1864)
Two Papers on the Vertebrata of the Lower Murray and Darling and on the Snakes of Sydney (1865)
Aborigines of the Lower Murray and Darling (1865)
The Snakes of Australia (1869)
The Mammals of Australia (1871)
Minerals and Rocks in the Collection of the Australian Museum (1873)
By 1874 the relationship between Gerard and the trustees of the museum had crumbled. The reason behind the breakdown of the link between the Director of the museum and the board could have been caused by a number of factors.
Gerard Krefft with a Prince Alfred Ray.
Darwin's Theory of Evolution was a controversial topic to many who were staunch supporters of Creationism. Gerard was a Darwin supporter. He wrote letters to the paper, stating as such, sharing his own observations of natural selection and was even in contact with Charles Darwin himself.
It also didn't help that Gerard accused some of the trustees of taking some of the museum items to fleece their own private collections. Whatever the reasons, open war was declared between the trustees and Gerard and played out on the pages of Australian newspapers.
"The trustees and Messrs G. Krefft and C. Masters, Curators of the Public Museum have come to an open war. The former have had the doors nailed up and have placed police in charge of the institution." South Australian Register
The final straw came when on August 20, 1874, he was ordered to leave. However, he chose to stay put stating his dismissal was unfair. Unfortunately, his young family lived at the museum and his wife had just delivered a stillborn daughter. Not a good day to be fired.
A couple of hefty lads had been hired by the trustees who delivered Gerard out on the street while still sitting in his chair. His family followed the same fate.
Gerard never recovered from his ignoble ejection from the museum, taking the trustees to court, but suffering insolvency the year before he died. His wife and children were left in a precarious financial situation after his death, so much so, friends appealed to the public to help them.
Gerard Krefft's headstone at St Jude's, Randwick. Courtesy: paulineconolly.com
Gerard's legacy was wide in the natural world where he was the member of many scientific societies, and contributed papers to the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London and other scientific and popular journals.
He is honoured in the scientific names of two reptiles endemic to Australia and a subspecies of freshwater turtle. The Krefft's glider and the mountain group of Krefftberget at Barentsoya, Svalbard is named after him.
He died in 1881 and is buried at St Jude's Anglican Church, Randwick.
'Gerard Krefft', Wikipedia, accessed online 31st January 2022, Gerard Krefft - Wikipedia
'Curator Krefft out the door', paulineconolly.com, accessed online 31st January, 2022, CURATOR KREFFT OUT THE DOOR! - Pauline Conolly
'Obituary - Mr Gerard Krefft', Australian Town and Country Journal, Saturday 26 February, 1881, Page 23
'New South Wales', South Australian Register, Wednesday 8 July, 1874, Page 5