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Amalie Dietrich - Personalities

Amalie Dietrich (1821 - 1891) Portrait of Amalie

Born 26 May 1821, Kondordie Amalie Nelle, in Saxony, Germany. Married Wilhelm Dietrich in 1846. After her marriage broke up in 1861, she was faced with having to support her daughter Charitas alone. Shipping magnate Johann Caesar VI Godeffroy offered her a job as a collector in Australia. He set up the Museum Godeffroy in Hamburg, Germany.

She arrived at Moreton Bay, Brisbane on 7 August 1863. She spent nearly ten years (1863-1872) in the frontiers of northern Queensland. She worked around Brisbane (1863-5), Gladstone (1865), Rockhampton (1866), Mackay (1867, 1869), Lake Elphinstone (1868) and Bowen (1870-2).

She collected anything living, from seaweeds and fish to woods and marsupials. She also sent at least eight Aboriginal skeletons, one skull and one tanned 'pelt' to the Museum.

After collection, all specimens had to be treated by drying, pressing or skinning, preserving, labelling and packaging for shipment back to Germany. Dietrich collected 30-40 items of each species. Godeffroy kept the best for his own museum, and sold the extras to European museums and scientists. She won awards, and several species were named after her.

Dietrich was recalled to Germany in late 1872. She was received with much acclaim from the scientific workd, and she lived in rooms .

Her friend Hans Martin Elster remembered her as having "a crooked back, a face full of wrinkles, with real bush-man habits, but still with a fresh energetic spirit; she was regarded in Hamburg as a personality as well as a scholar." (1)

As a field collector, Dietrich published nothing in her own name, and there remain only a few footnotes in scientific papers referring to her work. Her collections remain in museums around Europe, even to this day. She died on 9 March 1891.

Charitas Bischoff (1848 - 1925) Portrait of Charitas

Dietrich's only child was Charitas, born in 1848. She was a shy retiring child.

Amalie departed for Australia in 1863, when Charitas was 15. She stayed with the wealthy middle-class family of Dr Hans Meyer, who were friends of the family. She attended an expensive boarding school where she received a fine education. She also developed fashionable tastes in dress, poetry and music. After this Charitas was a governess, employed in wealthy households. Dietrich paid for all of this, through her work in Australia.

Charitas was 25 years old when she saw her mother again, and married a few months later. Her husband, Christian Bischoff, was a pastor. They moved to his parish in Roagger (now in Denmark). They had three children.

Charitas and her mother did not have an easy relationship. Charitas seems to have resented Amalie' strange profession and long absence. After her return, from all accounts, Amalie had rough, eccentric habits and manners, and cared little for such things as fashion and society, which were important to the Bischoffs. Mother and daughter soon became estranged.

There was some reconciliation in the last few years of her mother's life - from about 1886 onwards, after the birth of Charitas' son Adolf. Amalie died on one of her rare visits to the Bischoff household, on 9 March 1891.

Charitas wrote a largely fictional biography of her mother, called Amalie Dietrich. Ein Leben (Amalie Dietrich. A Life), fifteen years after her mother's death. She had probably destroyed the original letters from Australia years ago, so she made up new ones for this life story, based somewhat upon the travels and letters of another German collector in Australia, Lumholtz. This biography was used as fact for many years, but careful study shows that much of the book is fictional, showing the romanticised mother Charitas wishes she had.

Chartias was widowed in 1894, leaving her with three children to support. The publication of Ein Leben in 1909 allowed Charitas to financially support her young son, ensuring his further education.

Johann Caesar VI Godeffroy (1813-1885) Portrait of Godeffroy

Godeffroy was possibly the most important figure in Dietrich's scientific career. He owned his own shipyard, which operated out of Hamburg, Germany. In the 1850's Godeffroy extended his trade routes to the South Pacific, including Samoa and Australia. His ships often carried German immigrants to Australia.

As the son of a wealthy middle-class family, Godeffroy had an excellent education, which included an interest in natural history. He joined the family firm, J.C. Godeffroy, in 1837. By 1845 he was the head of the business, and the firm was the largest shipping firm in Hamburg, with twenty-seven ships.

'The expansion of the shipping firm into the Pacific showed Godeffroy's breadth of vision: the concept of systematically expanding his private collection into a museum of international repute, which at the same time would produce income from the sale of duplicates carried as backloading on his own ships was a stroke of genius.' (2)

Dietrich was the only woman Godeffroy employed as one of his collectors. He was so pleased with her work that he offered to employ an assistant for her. At various times she did have either local help or a German assistant.

Once Dietrich returned to Hamburg, she lived rent-free in a room above the Museum Godeffroy, and worked on her collections. Unfortunately, J.C. Godeffroy and Sohn went bankrupt in 1879, and in 1880 Dietrich had to move to a municipal home for elderly women in Hamburg. Godeffroy died in 1885.

(1) Ray Sumner, A Woman in the Wilderness, The Story of Amalie Dietrich in Australia, NSW University Press, Kensington, 1993, p. 72.
(2) Ibid., p. 15.
All three portraits are the original artwork of
Denise Sutherland, created using Painter 4.0, and based upon photographs as found in Ray Sumner, A Woman in the Wilderness, The Story of Amalie Dietrich in Australia, NSW University Press, Kensington, 1993.

ASAP logo Prepared by Denise Sutherland for
Bright Sparcs:
Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 14 August 1997
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