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archive-flag-2003Document relating to the history of the CANBR, by Helen Hewson, 2003

Australian National Herbarium - history

Dr Nancy Burbidge

The Australian National Herbarium (CANB) represents a number of amalgamations since its inception in the early 1930s. In those days it served mainly as a reference collection for the Division of Plant Industry’s research projects – being a " tool for identification and an information service on the taxonomy and related aspects of plants". Dr Nancy Burbidge was appointed to the new position of Systematic Botanist in 1946. She brought a national approach to taxonomic research, to the direction of the collection, and to the servicing of Australian taxonomy. Concurrently the then Division of Land Research and Regional Survey "needed a botanical identification service of its own [to service] the vegetation surveys … in Australia and … Papua New Guinea". The Plant Industry collection grew by virtue of donations and fortuitous gifts—the Land Research collection through the voucher collections made by its own staff. Many of the specimens (including the NGF numbers) are vouchers for wood specimens in the H.E.Dadswell Memorial Wood Collection. Dr Ru Hoogland became leader of the plant taxonomy group (DLR&RS) in 1952 and brought two further important influences: one was the raising of collection and curatorial standards for Australian herbaria and the other was the accumulation of a particularly valuable library collection to service Australian plant taxonomy , .

Cooperation between the two herbaria ensured a smooth amalgamation between 1968 and 1973. It was not until 1974, however, that a purpose-built building was available to house the growing collection and the united staffs. In 1975 the name of CANB was gazetted as Herbarium Australiense, an institution of "national heritage … the responsibility of the Federal Government to preserve and further develop for scientific study and documentation of the Australian flora". The two herbaria of the Division of Forest Research (Yarralumla (FRI) and Atherton (QRS)) simultaneously became components of Herbarium Australiense without physical amalgamation. At that stage the collection was estimated to house 360,000 specimens.

Dr Burbidge’s national approach was significant at a time when State herbaria (in spite of two of them being titled, 'National') were essentially servicing State interests particularly those of the economic and applied needs of agriculture and forestry. Through the Systematic Botany Committee of ANZAAS, a posting as Australian Botanical Liaison Officer, the compilation of service tools with national content (e.g. Dictionary of Australian Plant Genera (1963)), a pivotal report on the phytogeography of the Australian region in 1960, various national monographic studies on significant plant groups (including grasses), and planning work for an up-to-date 'Flora of Australia', Burbidge put the Herbarium at the forefront of national initiatives involving the Australian flora.

Dr Hansjoerg Eichler

In 1973 Dr Burbidge was seconded to work full time on the development of a 'Flora of Australia' project. The history of the Flora of Australia is documented in Volume 1 of that work. Dr Hansjoerg Eichler was appointed Curator. Dr Eichler oversaw the gazettal of the name 'Herbarium Australiense', continued to support the expansion of both the collection and its purpose-focused library, encouraged national taxonomic research and threw himself behind the Flora of Australia project. Herbarium Australiense housed staff of the Australian Biological Resources Study, to further work on Burbidge’s projects, viz., the Australian Plant Name Index (Chapman, 1991, now a web site) and Plant Taxonomic Literature (Burbidge, 1978); modeling work for the Flora text; the initiation of a house Journal (Brunonia (1978–1987), incorporated into the national journal, Australian Systematic Botany in 1988); and promoting research aimed at servicing the Flora. The lead and support provided by Dr Eichler and Herbarium Australiense was pivotal. Concurrently, Dr Eichler put Australian taxonomy on the international agenda. He encouraged collaboration and exchange visits nationally and internationally; he served on Australian Academy of Sciences Committees; and, he served the Committee for Spermatophyta and the Committee for Nomina Specifica Conservanda of the International Association of Plant Taxonomists.

By the time Dr Eichler retired in 1981, the first Volume of the Flora of Australia was due for publication and the 13th International Botanical Congress was held in Sydney, the tide of focus for herbaria was beginning to turn. Conservation issues were becoming uppermost in political and environmental awareness; the electronic age was developing to permit complex relational databases; new research foci in taxonomy and phylogeny were emerging; and molecular biology was soon to become a powerful research tool.

Dr Bryan Barlow

Under the control of Dr Bryan Barlow (1981–1988) and Dr Judy West (1989 to present) these changes of emphasis were taken on board. The Australian Biological Resources Study, though independent, and its Flora contributors continued to use the Herbarium and library resources; the collection began to be databased; and accessibility to associated ecological data began to improve. In 1984 the name of the herbarium became the Australian National Herbarium by gazettal and it was estimated to hold 500,000 specimens. In 1990 this estimate was revised to 450,000 specimens.

Dr Judy West

Under the directorship of Dr West, moves to establish a Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research (CPBR) embracing the staff and herbarium of the Australian National Botanic Gardens (CBG) together with the Australian National Herbarium and selected biodiversity-focussed research projects of the Division of Plant Industry were formalized in 1993. In 1994 the original ANH building was extended to house this far-sighted initiative. The gardens collection comprised over 200,000 specimens, bringing the total to 700,000. The heritage value of the collection was becoming impressive, it housing some of the original collections of Robert Brown, the largest Eucalyptus collection in the world, the largest Bryophyte collection in the southern hemisphere and one of the most import Papua New Guinea collections (important at a time of apparent neglect of the Lae herbarium). Now that the collection is better documented it is recognized that the number of specimens exceeds 1.4 million, making it the largest collection Australia.

The Centre took the leading role in the documentation of Rare or Threatened Australian Plants (ROTAP); has taken the running of the Australian Plant Name Index (APNI) in electronic database format; has developed cooperative research programs between specialists in other herbaria and research institutions; increased its role in the support of training of young taxonomists especially in collaboration with the Australian National University; established a Student Botanical Internship program to help train young taxonomists while gaining valuable technical assistance in difficult economic times; has developed a strong volunteer program which has largely focused on coping with the specimen-mounting backlog (which had previously kept a large proportion of the collection inaccessible); has enticed research scientists who have taken the research focus into the ’new-age’ of applied molecular biology; has embraced the capacity of computer-programming to create electronic interactive keys, notable among these being the Rainforest Key(s) and Euclid; continues to support CSIRO's research programs, especially those in the Biodiversity Sector, including documenting Australia's plant biodiversity through systematic research and supporting applied sustainable-management research, especially in weed control research; and, cooperated with the Department of Environment and Heritage and its programs aimed at biodiversity conservation (notably with ERIN and modeling for land management). Distribution and habitat data is being used for 'ground-truthing' much of the modeling work. Specific projects have included ecosystem rehabilitationj projects such as the conservation of the grassy white box woodlands of south estern Australia and the Greening the Grainbelt project with the Harden Mumburrah Landcare Group. In effect the data housed on herbarium sheets has become a resource for much more than formal taxonomic data, it underpins all the above initiatives. Such potential outcomes were documented/predicted by Nielsen and West in 1994.

Staff resources, being a limiting factor, led to prioritizing the research and to a databasing thrust to deal with plant groups that either have a high conservation need or are especially dominant in the Australian environment. To satisfy the need for more and more community groups to have access to data about all sorts of aspects of the Australian flora, the CPBR and the Australian National Herbarium led the way in cooperation with the major State-based collections to develop Australia’s Virtual Herbarium in 2001.

Australia's Virtual Herbarium is a collaborative project of the Commonwealth, State and Territory herbaria to make botanical information available via the Internet in an integrated format so that a query will harvest relevant information from all herbaria in real time and present the result as a single seamless report. It will present information from herbarium collections, nomenclatural and taxonomic databases, State and Territory checklists, Flora information systems, image databases and archives, and other on-line sources of botanical data. There are about 6 million botanical collections in the major Australian herbaria, with 40% of these currently recorded in databases. It is expected to complete the data capture of all botanical specimens by 2006.

Compiled by Helen Hewson, February 2003.


Barlow, B., 1984.   Australian National Herbarium. Australian Systematic Botany Society Newsletter 39:34–36.

Chippendale, G., 1976.   A brief history of the botanical collections in the Forest Research Institute. Australian Systematic Botany Society Newsletter 7:4–5.

Craven, L.A., 1995.   Ru Hoogland. Australian Systematic Botany Society Newsletter 82:15–16.

Eichler, Hj., 1979.   Herbarium Australiense. CSIRO Division of Plant Industry Annual Report (1978).

George, A.S., 1981.   The background to the Flora of Australia. Flora of Australia 1:3–24.

George, A.S., A.M.McCusker & A.E.Orchard, 1999.   Development of the Flora of Australia Project, in Flora of Australia 2nd edn 1 (Orchard, A.E. ed), ABRS/CSIRO, Australia

Hartley, W., 1947.   The Herbarium of the Division of Plant Industry, C.S.I.R. Australian Herbarium News 1:17–19; Function of a Commonwealth Herbarium loc. cit.: 28–31.

Hartley, W., 1978.   Nancy Tyson Burbidge. Brunonia 1(1):123–129.

Neilsen, E.S. & J.G.West, 1994, in P.L.Forey, C.J.Humphries & R.I. Vane-Wright, Systematics and Conservation Evaluation. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Orchard, A.E., 1995.   Hansjorg Eichler (1916–1992). Taxon 44:271–278.

Orchard, A.E., 1999. A History of Systematic Botany in Australia, in Flora of Australia 2nd edn 1 (Orchard, A.E. ed), ABRS/CSIRO, Australia.

Richardson, B.J. & A.M.McKenzie, 1992.   Australia’s Biological Collections and Those Who Use Them. Australian Biologist 5(1):19–30.

See also: Web site - Chronology of some significant events in the history of CPBR www.cpbr.gov.au/cpbr/history-cpbr/chronology-cpbr.html


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