Person / life (family and career)


Ludwig Leichhardt is the most famous of the German scientists and explorers in Australia. Ludwig Leichhardt became a legend in Australian history for his voyages of exploration and spectacular disappearance without trace while crossing the Outback in 1848, but his legacy to Australian science and its early development is just as intriguing and enduring. This is why he is often called“Humboldt of Australia”.

Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt (1813-1848?), naturalist and explorer, was born on 23 October 1813 at Trebatsch, Prussia, the fourth son and sixth of the eight children of Christian Hieronymus Matthias Leichhardt, farmer and royal inspector of peat, and his wife Charlotte Sophie, née Strählow.

Leichhardt was educated at Trebatsch, a boarding school at Zaue, a Gymnasium at Cottbus, and at the Universities of Berlin (1831, 1834-36) and Göttingen (1833).

After graduating from school in Cottbus, he began studying at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin in 1831;

In 1833 he transferred to the university in Göttingen for a year.  Leichhardt’s interests increasingly focused on the natural sciences and medicine. During his studies he became acquainted with the British Nicholson brothers; an especially close friendship developed with the younger brother, William, who also provided him with financial support.

In 1837 Leichhardt left university without graduating and accompanied William to England. Together they prepared themselves for careers as naturalists, undertaking excursions, and studying natural history collections in London.

In 1838 they continued their studies at the leading research institutions at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

In fall 1840, the two friends departed on a trip across southern Europe, climbing the volcanic peak of Auvergne, visiting ancient ruins and cultural sites in Italy, and trekking through the Alps. But William withdrew from their plans for a scientific expedition overseas.

In October 1841 Leichhardt boarded a ship to Australia alone. He was pursuing his goal of exploring the natural world of the fifth continent.

Leichhardt arrived in Australia in February 1842 and settled in Sydney. At the time, the interior of the continent was mostly considered unexplored territory, while the British colonies along the coast offered ideal starting points for an expedition.

 After preliminary field studies in the immediate area, Leichhardt traveled through the colony between September 1842 and May 1844, examining the flora, fauna, and geology from New South Wales to present-day Brisbane.

 Upon returning to Sydney, he organized his natural history collections, wrote a geological treatise, and began planning an overland expedition from Moreton Bay (the region of present-day Brisbane) to Port Essington (near present-day Darwin).

 The final expedition party traveled for nearly 15 months, arriving at their destination on 17 December 1845. All but one of the eight men, the bird collector John Gilbert, survived the journey across more than 4,800 kilometers of unexplored wilderness.

Back in Sydney, Leichhardt and his companions were received with many honors. The journey, which was financed by private money from Sydney businessmen, opened a trade route to the harbor of Port Essington.

 Even today, landmarks along the route still bear the names of the expedition’s sponsors. Leichhardt’s travel journal, published in 1847, records the characteristics of the regions he passed through, and describes his natural history observations and everyday life on the expedition; it secured his place in history.

In December 1846 Leichhardt set out once more with a new team, this time with the goal of being the first Europeans to traverse Australia from east to west. Their destination was the Swan River Colony, in the region of present-day Perth. After fewer than eight months, adverse weather and declining morale forced the weakened party to turn back.

Leichhardt gathered men for a second attempt: after their departure from McPherson’s Station on 5 April 1848, he and his companions—four Europeans and two Aborigines—were never seen again.

Four years after Leichhardt's disappearance the Government of New South Wales sent out a search expedition under Hovenden Hely. The expedition found nothing but a single campsite with a tree marked "L" over "XVA". In 1858 another search expedition was sent out, this time under Augustus Gregory. This expedition found only a couple of trees marked "L".

In 1864 Duncan McIntyre discovered two trees marked with "L" on the Flinders River near the Gulf of Carpentaria. After his return to Victoria McIntyre telegraphed the Royal Society on 15 December 1864 that he had found "two trees marked L about 15 years old".[9] He was subsequently appointed leader of a search expedition, but found no further trace of Leichhardt.

In 1869 the Government of Western Australia heard rumours of a place where the remains of horses and men killed by indigenous Australians could be seen. A search expedition was sent out under John Forrest, but nothing was found, and it was decided that the story might refer to the bones of horses left for dead at Poison Rock during Robert Austin's expedition of 1854.

The mystery of Leichhardt's fate remained in the minds of explorers for many years.