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RICHARD HELMS, ZOOLOGIST & BOTANIST, DEPT. of AGRICULTURE, SYDNEY

The postcard was sent from the Linnean Society of New South Wales, Elizabeth Bay, Sydney as Printed Matter Only, to Richard Helms Esqr., Department of Agriculture, 140 Lower George Street, Sydney. The green ½ penny N.S.W. stamp was canceled WILLIAM STREET/ MY 2 ( )/ 3-5-P.M./03/ N.S.W (Figure 1).

Richard Helms, zoologist and botanist, was born on 12 December 1842 at Altona, Hanover, Germany, son of Frederick Helms, Lutheran minister, and his wife Caroline. He migrated in 1858 to Melbourne where he worked for a tobacconist. In 1862 he moved to Dunedin where he turned to dentistry and later to watchmaking. Fluctuating between Australia and New Zealand, he extended his extraordinary versatility to zoology. Although self-taught, he became so zealous as a collector that many new species of New Zealand insects and a number of shells were named after him.

In 1888 Helms became a collector for the Australian Museum in Sydney. He worked first in the Snowy Mountains and from Jindabyne in February 1889 he wrote to curator of the museum, that riding, walking and collecting material occupied him virtually from dawn to midnight each day. Later he made excursions to the regions of the Darling and Richmond Rivers. He was reputed to have had 'the wisdom of a savage as to where a bird would nest or a beetle would burrow', but despite his main interest in zoology he discovered new species of plants, some of which were named in his honour by Baron von Mueller, Australia’s greatest botanist.

In 1891 Helms was appointed naturalist to an east-west expedition sponsored by Sir Thomas Elder and led by David Lindsay. The party of 8 white men and 5 Afghans with 44 camels started from Warrina, South Australia, in May and, after great difficulty in arid country, crossed into Western Australia in July and dispersed in the Murchison region early in 1892. The lack of water supply was a problem during the exploration, and Helms who had the role of naturalist was also a problem. He was a cause of many of the delays as he wandered off in search of specimens for the collections. In addition he refused to care for his camel, as each man was instructed to do, and he also questioned Lindsay’s authority as leader. The expedition had been given a Handbook of Instructions for the Guidance of The Elder Scientific Exploration Expedition, which is illustrated in Figure 2.

Results of the expedition were disappointing, but Helms made important collections of fauna and flora. The discussion of these collections by scientists of the Royal Society of South Australia was published in its Proceedings, 16 (1892-96), together with a paper by Helms on anthropology. In 1896-99 he was biologist to the Department of Agriculture, Western Australia. He wrote papers on his studies of the honey-bee, ticks and other parasites, noxious weeds, plant diseases and exotic birds. He also published informative material on his finds in excursions to the East Kimberleys and the Abrolhos Islands.

Helms returned to New South Wales in 1900 and as a bacteriologist in the Department of Mines and Agriculture published many papers in the Agricultural Gazette and other journals. He retired in 1908 and worked on his extensive collections and made further excursions. On a visit to the Solomon Islands he caught a chill and died in Sydney on 17 July 1914, leaving a reputation as one of the most versatile and diligent natural scientists in Australia. He was buried in the non-sectarian section of the Gore Hill cemetery. Survived by two daughters, he was predeceased by his wife Sarah Ann, née Reay, whom he had married at 36 in Greymouth, New Zealand. A photo of Richard Helms is shown in Figure 3.


I acknowledge that most of the text in this paper is derived from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Addendum (August 2009):  Helms was sent a cover from France to his address at 393 Alfred Street, North Sydney, N.S.W. and the blue 25 centimes stamp was postmarked 16/ OCT/ 10 (Figure 4).

 

The reverse showed that it was received at NORTH SYDNEY/ 21 NO. 10 2-P./ N.S.W.  The cancel on the front was repeated on the reverse (Figure 5).

 

Addendum (October 2009):  Another cover, On Public Service  Only, addressed to R. Helms Esq, Bacteriologist, Dept. Agriculture, Lower George Street, Sydney, has the purple 2d perfined 'T' Tasmania 'Pictorial' stamp, postmarked HOBART/ JA 12/ 1908.  This cover attests to the multiple tasks that this scientist filled in public service (Figure 6),

  

 
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