My labour of love for John Gilbert, legendary bird expert

Article Featured Image

Paradise parrot Gilbert discovered the Paradise Parrot, sadly now extinct, on the Darling Downs of southern Queensland in 1844.

Clem Fisher, Senior Curator of Vertebrate Zoology talks about her obsession with and extensive research into the work of John Gilbert, ornithologist, curator and explorer.


I first became interested in the collections of John Gilbert when I started work as “Trainee, Natural History” in Liverpool Museum (now World Museum Liverpool) in 1975.

I was helping to move the bird collection to new storage and noticed some beautifully prepared bird skins from Australia, with clearly written, informative labels. They were all labelled as having been collected by John Gould (1804-1881), one of England’s most famous experts on birds. As we went on moving the bird skins, I came across some other specimens which were labelled as Gould’s. These were not so well prepared, and had labels with very little information on them, in scratchy, sloppy writing.

I did some research and realised the well-prepared specimens, with the well-written labels, were collected by John Gould’s assistant, John Gilbert (1812-1845). Gould’s specimens were the poorer ones. Gould was never one to acknowledge anyone else’s work (he treated the Nonsense Poet Edward Lear, an admirable bird artist, in the same cavalier manner). Stung by the injustice of this, I thought I would have a bit of a look at Gilbert’s specimens. Nearly 40 years later I am still doing so, as it was far more complicated that I could ever have imagined.

Between 1838 and 1845 John Gilbert collected more than 8% of the bird and mammal species of Australia for the first time. He sent hundreds of specimens back to Gould, who used many of them to describe new species and then recouped his outlay by selling the specimens to contacts all over the world. Some of the new owners took Gilbert’s labels off and mounted their specimens for display; some took the original labels off and put new ones on, some put their specimens into poor storage where specimen and label were eaten by museum beetle larvae. Others specimens were swapped, listed as “duplicates”, or discarded. Reconstructing Gilbert’s collections has been a monumental task, aided greatly in the last two years by a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship. The huge database developed during this period has made it possible to see patterns and links in what is in effect a jigsaw puzzle with hardly any pieces, and with those it does have often being damaged.

See the John Gilbert collection online, as well as a timeline of his life and his diary from the Leichhardt Expedition of 1844-1845 – the results of many years research on Gilbert’s collecting travels in Australia, Timor and elsewhere.

Much still needs to be done, so watch this space! I have started writing a book on Gilbert’s collections in Western Australia, and I'd also like to write his biography.