FITZGERALD, Robert David (1830-1892)


FITZGERALD, Robert David (1830-1892)
writer on orchids
son of Robert David FitzGerald, a banker, was born at Tralee, Ireland, on 30 November 1830. When a boy he became interested in ornithology, continued his study of it while doing a civil engineering course at Queen's College, Cork, and became a good taxidermist. He emigrated to Sydney in 1856, and in August of that year joined the staff of the lands department. In 1864 while on a trip to Wallis Lake he became much interested in the orchids he found on its shores. He began studying them, received some assistance from William Carron of the botanic gardens, Sydney, and later on had some correspondence with Darwin. Several references to FitzGerald will be found in the second edition of Darwin's book on the fertilization of orchids. FitzGerald became deputy surveyor-general in 1873, and while in this position succeeded in having permanently reserved for the public the areas fronting the Katoomba, Leura, and Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains, and reservations were also made in other parts of the country.
In 1875 FitzGerald published the first part of his great book on Australian Orchids. Other parts were issued at intervals and the first volume was published in 1882 and dedicated to the memory of Charles Darwin. In the first part the illustrations were in monochrome drawn by FitzGerald, but in the second part they began to be coloured. The intention was merely to reproduce the originals in facsimile, but FitzGerald had an artist's eye for colour and the illustrations are beautifully done. They were drawn in the spare time of a busy public servant in a growing department, but in 1884 the passing of the crown lands act led to the work of his department being decentralized. Fifteen district offices were created and, on a commission being appointed, of which FitzGerald was a member, to inquire into the conduct of the department at Sydney, it was found necessary to retire a large number of senior officers. This inquiry was a cause of great worry to FitzGerald, his own health became affected, and he retired on a pension in 1887. He continued working on his book until his death at Hunter's Hill, Sydney, on 12 August 1892. He married Emily Hunt and was survived by three sons and three daughters. His grandson, Robert David FitzGerald, born in 1902 became a well-known Australian poet. At the time of FitzGerald's death four parts of his second volume had been published and a fifth was in preparation . This was completed by Henry Deane (q.v.) and Arthur J. Stopps, the lithographer of many of the earlier plates.
FitzGerald was an amiable and versatile man, an excellent departmental officer, a surveyor, civil engineer, geologist, ornithologist and botanist of great ability. He will always be remembered for his great work on Australian orchids, and is commemorated in the following species:—Sarcochilus Fitzgeraldi, Dracophyllum Fitzgeraldi, and Eugenia Fitzgeraldi.
The Sydney Mail, 3 September 1892; Mrs C. A. Messmer, The Victorian Naturalist, April 1932; J. H. Maiden, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol. XLII, p. 102; Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, vol. XXI, p. 827; private information.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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