(The Remarkable Life of Allan Riverstone McCulloch) By Brendan Atkins
NewSouth Publishing 2022
RRP $34.99

Most Sydneysiders will be very familiar with, and many will have visited, the lovely old 19th century sandstone building at the corner of College street and William street within whose walls is the Australian Museum. 

We often think of such institutions as being perhaps a bit stuffy and staffed by eccentric scientists who patiently, co-operatively and calmly go about their business of sharing their scientific knowledge by presenting the public with displays of rare fauna and artifacts from remote areas of the globe. We generally don’t think of museums as being places of personal conflict and political intrigue. 

Although the obvious purpose of this book is to resurrect and promote the reputation of Allan McCulloch, who was a senior curator at the Australian Museum 100 years ago, I was equally as intrigued by the insights into the turbulent behind-the-scenes workings of the Museum over the years and found it to be equally fascinating.Brendan Atkins was the editor of The Australian Museum’s Explore magazine from 2006 to 2015 and for many years worked as an ecologist in the management of rivers and wetlands and clearly understands how such institutions operate.

We are told that right from its early days’ things were stormy at the Museum and that in 1853 Curator William Wall “was kept busy documenting and storing the collection….all the while fighting as rearguard action to preserve his job from the new Board.” 

And then in 1865 the head of the museum Gerard Krefft had run-ins with the Board culminating in his sacking. However, “Krefft refused to leave. Barricading himself into his rooms, he had to be physically ejected. Dramatically, two prize fighters…. smashed a door panel to gain access before carrying the defiant Krefft-still seated.…into the street.”

Allan McCulloch, who was to become one of the world’s leading fish biologists (ichthyologist) and a talented illustrator, joined the Museum as an unpaid cadet at the age of 12 in 1898. It was where he would spend the rest of his life, training on the job, having never received any formal qualifications. 

McCulloch’s grandfather Thomas Macculloch (the spelling was later changed), a Scot, was transported to Australia after being convicted of high treason for taking part in an uprising against British rule. 

By the time that Allan was born in 1885 his family was part of the Sydney establishment although with a mixed reputation. He had relatives that worked in the law, in business and in architecture. Allan’s father was a barrister who became a judge, although dying from tuberculosis almost immediately after his appointment. His uncle Andrew joined the NSW Parliament in 1877 and, consistent with a long tradition of NSW politicians, used his position as an MP to boost the value of his own real estate developments. He was described by one historian as ‘something of a shonky land developer.’ He eventually went bankrupt, was accused of fraud, and left town in disgrace causing the family to change the spelling of their name. 

At the time that McCulloch joined the Museum its main fish expert was one James Ogilby.  He had once been a full-time staff member but by the time that McCulloch joined he only worked on contract because of ‘an extreme and undiscriminating affinity for alcohol.’ It was Ogilby who interested the young McCulloch in fish.

The Preface says:

More than a leading scientist, McCulloch was a popular staff member and museum educator; a talented illustrator; innovative photographer and cinematographer; an artist and adventurer; a musician-truly a renaissance man…

Why, Atkins then asks, has such a man, after whom the Murray Cod received its scientific name (Maccullochella),  had such little recognition? Even the official history of the Museum published in 1979 apparently paid him scant regard.

The book takes us through the details of McCulloch’s career with the Museum which included adventures to Lord Howe Island, other Pacific Islands and New Guinea where he undertook ground-breaking and world class research. He played a significant role in dealing with the rat plague that threatened many native species on Lord Howe Island.

As the book progresses, we learn that one of his main contributions to science was his ability to communicate complex scientific concepts to the public in a simple and entertaining manner, particularly by his use of Lantern Slides, and then cinematography. He also showed great skill in designing attractive exhibits. We are told:

McCulloch’s artistic eye and practical training helped him design exhibitions and prepared specimens for display. There was plenty of demand for lectures too….

The book deals with the sensitive issue of the collection of artifacts from indigenous communities and their repatriation, and this became a real issue for McCulloch starting with a trip to Murray Island in the Torres Strait. He and his colleague collected many items which later appeared to have been specifically prepared by locals for the collectors.

However, it was his expeditions to New Guinea with filmmaker Frank Hurley that caused his real strife when they showed little cultural sensitivity and were accused of thieving material from the villagers. Atkins provides much interesting detail about McCulloch’s exploits in New Guinea.

Sadly, McCulloch had begun to experience serious mental health issues from the age of 35. His condition had deteriorated after his New Guinea experiences and in March 1925 he had a complete nervous breakdown requiring him to take one year off work. He eventually took his own life in Honolulu with a single bullet to the head on 1 September 1925 aged just 40. Apparently, he feared death less than exposing himself to the crude mental health treatments of the day.

The book concludes as follows:

Over his relatively short life, McCulloch made significant contributions, both personal and professional. He described and illustrated many new species of fishes and other animals. He mentored a generation of museum curators and remained an enthusiastic advocate of museums for public education. He seemed aware of his own talents and, to a lesser extent, weaknesses.

This is an informative book and although it is primarily focused on McCulloch’s life it deals with many side issues along the way. I did find that it jumped a bit too readily from one topic to another and from one period to another, and that sometimes too much attention was paid to the side issues which I felt interrupted the flow of the book. One example is where he goes into great detail about the issue of conscription during World 1. 

Overall, this is an interesting biography of a brilliant but troubled man who should not be forgotten. It is well worth a read.

John Watts

Retired Barrister, Gloucester resident, and author of ‘Nine Lives for Our Planet. Personal stories of nine inspiring women who cherish Earth.’ and ‘The Town That Said NO to AGL. How Gloucester Was Saved from Coal Seam Gas’. John is also the president of the Gloucester Environment Group.

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