Little known naturalist recognised in new UQ study

18 Apr 2017
A reproduction of a newspaper sketch of the Chevert from 1875 (Anon. 1875b. The New Guinea Expedition. Australasian Sketcher 3:12 June, pp. 38 and 44)

The life of a little known young American medical doctor who took part in Australia's first scientific expedition to New Guinea, is finally receiving recognition, 141 years after his untimely murder.

University of Queensland PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences and adjunct at Murdoch University Graham Fulton said the new paper celebrated the important legacy of Dr William Hughes James (1852-1876), commonly known as Dr James.

“Very little has ever been published about Dr James despite his participation in an important and historic international expedition,” Mr Fulton said. 

“This research presents what is known based on published and unpublished sources.

“He was an American citizen, originally from Virginia, USA, who travelled with William Macleay’s Chevert Expedition to New Guinea in 1875, assuming dual roles as the ship’s surgeon and as a collector/taxidermist,” Mr Fulton said.

“Dr James possessed an adventurous character that saw him travel from east to west across the USA. 

“He became a silver miner and sailed on a steamer from San Francisco to Australia in search of adventure. 

“His misfortune in losing his position as medical doctor aboard that steamer led to the good fortune of becoming a naturalist and surgeon aboard the Chevert expedition in 1875. 

“The expedition left Sydney in a carnival-like atmosphere, dominating the headlines and engaging all of Australia in a sense of national pride.”

Mr Fulton said the expedition collected in northern Queensland, the Torres Strait Islands and New Guinea. 

“While many of his specimens were never recorded against his name, at least 99 birds, three mammals and some invertebrates were,” he said. 

“They are now in the Natural History Museum, Tring, UK and the Macleay Museum, University of Sydney. 

Mr Fulton said a sub-species of a bird known as the Trumpet Manucode (Phonygamma jamesii) had been named in honour of Dr James and was tentatively listed as the Papuan Trumpet Manucode in the BirdLife Australia subspecies list. 

“It is listed because it occurs in the Torres Strait Islands, but other subspecies of Trumpet Manucode occur on mainland of New Guinea so this name appears inappropriate.

“Instead, I suggest the common name Dr James’ Trumpet Manucode be adopted in Australia for this taxon.”

At the conclusion of the expedition, Dr James returned to New Guinea without the protection of a large expedition to live in a grass hut and continue collecting, but was speared to death by a neighbouring tribe.

Mr Fulton said the story of Dr James was entwined with the great scientific names of an emerging Australia: George Masters, William Macleay, E. P. Ramsay, William Petterd, Kendall Broadbent, Lawrence Hargrave (portrayed on the first Australian $20 note) and William Macarthur (through the Chevert) (portrayed on the $2 note).

“His short-lived career as a naturalist/collector was conducted on the fringe of the known world, where he penetrated into the unknown—an occupation fraught with inherent dangers, and alas, his life was taken too soon,” he said. 

“He deserves to be recognised both in Australia and America.”

The new study is published in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists Club, the premier journal for historic bird-related research. 

A map (using a google image) of Dr James’ collection sites in New Guinea. Acknowledgement to Jutta Beher


A picture of a Dr James label in his hand writing. Acknowledgement to Hein Van Grouw Museum of Natural History, Tring, UK

Media: Mr Graham Fulton,