The sad case of Gerard Krefft and how the Australian Museum spins his story (and history)

©Warren Nunn (First published 29 January 2016. Updated 9 October 2016)

Gerard Krefft.

Johann Ludwig Gerard Krefft was a dedicated and celebrated scientist who marred his own legacy by some questionable actions.

His significant contribution to Australia’s scientific endeavour is rightly remembered, but it was his role as Australian Museum curator (1864-1874) and the manner in which he was dismissed that made him such a divisive figure.

It is a worthy exercise to paint a picture of an individual who had a lasting impact on society but it reflects poorly on those who would gloss over, or even attempt to twist history.

The Australian Museum—aided by some poor journalism—has done Gerard Krefft’s memory no favours by trying to blot out/reinterpret the man’s downfall.

History should be painted as it happened and as best as it can be apprehended from the information that can be gathered. Achievements should be acknowledged and appreciated. It is debatable if character flaws should be dwelled upon except when they are an integral part of the person’s story.

The revisionist approach of the Australian Museum in regards to Gerard Krefft reflects poorly upon an institution that states, “Our science involves research into, and care of, a valuable physical bank of biological and cultural information”.1

With such a worthwhile and laudable approach, why try to present to the world a picture of Gerard Krefft that is highly questionable?

The museum asserts that Krefft was dismissed because he was an evolutionist who was victimised and literally thrown out of his job by conniving creationists.2 It had a willing ally in Australia’s national broadcaster the ABC, in misrepresenting Krefft’s treatment to the public as I first discovered and reported on in 2015.3

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper was another uncritical voice that perpetuated the Krefft sacking myth with a report that repeated the museum’s claims.4

While the museum continues to trot out the line that Krefft was the victim,5 the Australian Dictionary of Biography gives a very frank and detailed account that does not gloss over Krefft’s actions.6

While the museum’s public relations spin on Krefft is somewhat understandable yet still objectionable, the real story of Krefft’s dismissal is worth revisiting, particularly because the mainstream media—of which I was part for 40-plus years—has not properly done the job. If it had, there would be no need for me to write this.

Much of the narrative I have constructed is open to easy scrutiny with a simple search of the National Library of Australia’s newspaper archives. I have made things even easier by creating a public list.7

When trustees submitted their report8 of the museum’s activities in 1874, it laid out a sorry tale which left little doubt that—at the very least—Gerard Krefft was a difficult man to deal with. There is no suggestion in the report or subsequent articles that Krefft was under scrutiny because he was an evolutionist.

At this point, it worth comparing that with the treatment of a more recent scientist named Raymond Damadian, who invented the Magnetic Resonance Scanning Machine and which led to the development of MRI.9 When in 2003, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Paul Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield for their discoveries related to MRI, some were mystified that Damadian was not recognised and concluded it was because he was a creationist.10

There were a number of evolutionists who said that Damadian should have been recognised and the vocal anti-creationist philosopher Michael Ruse ‘cringed’ at the thought it was driven by bias.11

But back to the 1874 report that detailed Gerard Krefft’s supposed misdemeanours. It starts with details of the curator’s sacking:

The Trustees have to express their deep regret that circumstances have occurred during the past year which disclosed an utter want of care and attention in the discharge of his duties on the part of Mr. Krefft, their curator and secretary, and which resulted, after repeated acts of disobedience to the lawful orders of the trustees, in the removal of that officer from his position, and in the closing of the institution to the public for a short period.8

The report then details a number of events, the actions taken and the role that the curator played including:

  • Specimens of gold to the value of £70 had been stolen from cabinets. An inquiry was instigated but the Colonial Secretary advised against it suggesting it should be left to the police. The gold was never recovered and no charges were brought.
  • In March, the trustees were told that indecent photographs were being produced on Mr Krefft’s orders. The curator denied it and asserted that he was the victim of a conspiracy on the part of the servants of the institution.
  • In June, numerous statements reflecting upon the character and conduct of Mr Krefft were contained in evidence given before a select committee of the Legislative Assembly inquiring into the museum’s management. The report showed that Mr Krefft had preferred charges against some of the trustees, including that some had used their position for personal gain. The committee found that Mr Krefft’s allegations were baseless and the evidence showed that he was a “most unfit man for a position of trust”.
  • A special meeting was set for June 11 to discuss the select committee’s report. Mr Krefft did not fulfil his obligations either to properly convene the meeting or to attend it, so it was resolved to consider Mr Krefft’s conduct at a special meeting on June 16.
  • Twelve trustees attended the special meeting and it was unanimously resolved to appoint a sub-committee to inquire into various charges against Mr Krefft including drunkenness; permitting indecent photographs to be taken; selling photographs through the servants of the institution; having furniture made for himself from museum material; taking receipts from Robert Barnes for work done under the name of William Bradley with the view of deceiving the Board of Trustees; breaking up a fossil jaw; sending away as donations in his own name valuable specimens; making a false return of the numbers of visitors; and disobeying the orders of the trustees given at the last ordinary monthly meeting.
  • Mr Krefft refused to attend a monthly meeting in July and locked the minute book in his room. Krefft refused to provide keys to the museum building and an application was made to the Minister of Justice and Public Instruction, for the services of a sergeant and two members of the police force to take charge of the institution, the Museum not being considered safe under the circumstances.
  • On July 4 the trustees gave the secretary of the Police Department temporary charge of the museum.
  • Fourteen board members were present at an adjourned meeting on July 7, when it was resolved that Mr Krefft should be suspended from his duties as secretary and he was again asked to attend the inquiry into his actions as curator.
  • Mr Krefft was invited to attend the sub-committee’s inquiry on the 13th, but declined and replied that he had given the Attorney-General a full statement of his case, and the reasons why he declined to be tried by a “tribunal of judges who had ill-will against him”. The Attorney-General returned Mr Krefft’s communication unread. Mr Krefft declined to attend a subsequent meeting because of illness and when requested by letter to send the petty cash book, letter book, exchange book, the 24 copies of the select committee’s report, and a number of keys, Mr Krefft only sent the petty cash book.
  • It was then unanimously resolved, that in the event of Mr Krefft neglecting to hand over the missing books, papers, and keys before 3pm July 17, the matter would be referred to the next board meeting, with a view to his dismissal. In reply to a letter from the acting secretary, the curator forwarded a number of keys, books and papers on the 17th, but all the articles specified were not included; and the board then suspended Mr Krefft from his office as curator.
  • After considering the sub-committee’s report, the trustees decided there was no alternative left but to dismiss Mr Krefft from his office as curator and secretary. The decision was made on August 20 by a majority of 10 votes to two.
  • On the following day, Mr Krefft was informed of his dismissal, and required to give up possession of his apartments to the trustees on or before the 31st of that month. Because Mr Krefft refused to vacate the rooms, the trustees sought but was refused government help to evict Mr Krefft because the museum was public property.
  • The trustees discovered that Mr Krefft was storing large quantities of fuel and other provisions in the museum cellar and determined that it was in the interests of the public to effect his immediate removal.
  • They authorized one Charles H. Pearl to remove Mr Krefft, his family, and effects from the museum premises which was effected—without violence—on September 21. Mr. E. P. Ramsay was appointed curator on the 22nd and the museum reopened on the 24th.

The above précis8 shows that Mr Krefft was afforded every opportunity to state his case but his refusal to even talk about the situation left the trustees with no option but to dismiss him. Why Mr Krefft refused to defend himself is a mystery.

Even if we assume that none of the charges had any substance, there still remains Mr Krefft’s dereliction of his duties and the reasonable requests made to basically do his job. Note even though the trustees decided Mr Krefft was guilty of some of the charges, I see no need to recount them as they are on public record.

But it should be also be pointed out that when Mr Krefft appealed for help from his staunch ally Sir Henry Parkes (who is known as Australia’s ‘Father of Federation’) the then premier made the following pointed reply:

You have been much to blame for indiscretion & in some cases disobedience … I have great respect for your undoubted ability & am truly sorry that you should be involved in such a disagreeable difficulty.6

Mr Krefft sued one of the trustees Edward Hill over his eviction and was awarded £250. Hill sought a retrial and the judges differed on the trustees’ power of dismissal.6 Judge Hargrave criticized the trustees’ behaviour as “altogether illegal, harsh and unjust”, while Judge Faucett believed Krefft’s “conduct justified his dismissal”.6 In 1876, parliament voted £1000 to Krefft for arrears of salary until July when his dismissal was finally confirmed by the governor-in-council. The Robertson government refused to pay unless Krefft signed a bond renouncing all claims against the government and trustees.6

Gerard Krefft pictured with a Prince Alfred Ray,
Ceratoptera Alfredi.

At this point, Mr Krefft’s perhaps voice should be heard from a letter that was published in 1878:

Permit me to point out to you that my litigation with the Australian Museum Trustees is carried on for the benefit of my creditors, and that you have done me a serious injury by your “leader” of this day, in which you say “that at the end of 1877 the trustees were still involved in litigation with their late curator, who had obtained a second or third verdict against them, on which a new trial had been granted.” You state what is utterly untrue, and as the case of Krefft v. The Australian Museum Trustees may be called on any day this week, I hope that you will refrain from making any further remarks concerning my law case, and that you will publish this letter in your next issue for the satisfaction of my creditors, who may think that my verdict of £925 has been paid to me. The jury gave me their verdict, the trustees managed to saddle the Government with their responsibilities, and the liberal-minded and indulgent Farnell Administration is now trying to beat me down—that is, prevent my creditors to get twenty shillings in the pound. I am yours. GERARD KREFFT. Curator of the Australian Museum. 73, Stanley-street, June 14, 1878.

[Our remarks above quoted by Mr. Krefft were founded on the report of the trustees. It is, we trust, needless to say that we had no design to injure Mr.Krefft or his creditors. And we cannot see that what was said in our leader on the subject has any tendency to such a result. — ED. E. NEWS.)12

Note that despite the fact he was no longer in the role, Mr Krefft’s defiantly described himself as curator.

Krefft died at Randwick, Sydney, on 19 February 1881, aged 51. It has been suggested the ordeal led to his premature death but the unpalatable situation may have been avoided altogether had Mr Krefft simply faced up to the accusations and sought an amicable resolution. It’s possible he may have even kept his job.

Clearly Gerard Krefft was a proud, obstinate man who felt he didn’t have to answer to anyone on the manner in which he ran the Australian Museum. That cost him his job but his discoveries and achievements are well documented and appreciated.

He was certainly not the victim of any vendetta based on the fact that he embraced Charles Darwin’s evolutionary explanations of origins.

That most certainly is the last thing for which anyone should be fired.

Unfortunately though, there now exists a prevailing culture in academia and the media to marginalise anyone who dissents from evolution. And people actually do lose their jobs because of their creationist convictions as has been well documented by Dr Jerry Bergman in his book Slaughter of the Dissidents.13

It’s also worth reading about the dismissal of creationist David Coppedge from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s international Cassini mission to Saturn.14 Contrast that event with the Gerard Krefft case and decide for yourself who received the worse treatment.

Mr Coppedge now runs a website dedicated to highlighting problems with the claims of evolutionary science.

UPDATE: Unlike David Coppedge's experience, another creationist who was badly treated and sacked by a university, had success in taking legal action.15

Microscopist Mark Armitage whom Cal State University fired after a paper he co-authored on dinosaur soft tissue won a historic settlement. Without going in to the details, it's clear that Armitage was wronged and the positive resolution of his case is cause for some celebration despite the overwhelming prejudice against creationists that exists in academia.

CHALLENGE: If you've read to this point you must be interested in the subject matter. Should you find any problems with my presentation of the facts, I'm happy to revisit anything after considering your objections. It's an expectation of excellence I place on myself. Over to you, dear reader...

References

  1. Kauter, M., Science at the Australian Museum, australianmuseum.net.au, accessed 2016. Return to text
  2. Spicer, D., Museum curator sacked for supporting evolution gets overdue tribute, abc.net.au, accessed 2016. Return to text
  3. Nunn, W., Was Gerard Krefft sacked for being an evolutionist?, November 2015; creation.com. Return to text
  4. Taylor, A., Australian Museum: Descendant steps onto site of Gerard Krefft’s shock sacking, smh.com.au, accessed 2016. Return to text
  5. Johann (Gerard) Krefft, Scientific explorer and discovery of megafauna, australianmuseum.net.au, accessed 2016. Return to text
  6. Rutledge, M., and Whitley,G. P., Krefft, Johann Ludwig (Louis) (1830–1881), accessed 2016. First published Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974. Return to text
  7. Gerard Kreff list, trove.nla.gov.au, created July 2015. Return to text
  8. Australian Museum. (1875, April 17). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 9. Retrieved January 29, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article28403194. Return to text
  9. Raymond Vahan Damadian, wikipedia.org, accessed 2016. Return to text
  10. Wieland, C., The not-so-Nobel decision, Creation 26(4):40–42, September 2004. Return to text
  11. Ruse, M., The Nobel Prize in Medicine—Was there a religious factor in this year’s (non) selection?, Metanexus Online Journal, March 2004. Return to text
  12. Mr. Krefft and the trustees of the Australian Museum. (1878, June 15). Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 - 1931), p. 5. Retrieved January 29, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article107948870. Return to text
  13. To, L., If you can’t beat them, ban them, J. Creation 23(2):37–40, April 2009. Return to text
  14. Coppedge, D., The cost of standing, davidcoppedge.com, accessed 2016. Return to text
  15. Mark Armitage Wins Legal Victory, crev.info. Return to text