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» The Role of Science

The Role of Science

The Victorian Exploring Expedition was originally conceived with a dual purpose - to discover new land that could be used for farming and grazing, and to collect new information about the geography, climate, wildlife, flora and indigenous people of Australia.

Three scientific officers were appointed:

  • William Wills, as well as being the expedition's navigator, was to keep detailed records of temperature, humidity, wind and other climatic phenomena.
  • Ludwig Becker, a skilled scientific illustrator, was to keep visual records of wildlife and plants, and anything else of scientific interest, as well as collecting supplementary weather information.
  • Hermann Beckler, the expedition's doctor, was also a collector of botanical specimens.

Unfortunately, the good intentions for the expedition did not last long. Burke displayed no interest in the scientific purposes - his sole aim was to win glory by being the first to cross the Australian continent from south to north. When Beckler, uneasy about Burke's erratic judgement, offered his resignation at Menindie, Burke gladly accepted it. When Burke split his party at Menindie, it also gave him the chance to get rid of Becker, whom he had always disliked.

Only Wills remained to carry on the vital work of navigation. With extraordinary fidelity, he kept up his schedule of hourly notations of temperature, humidity and wind direction. Even on the return from Carpentaria to Cooper's Creek, which was no more than a shuffling marathon against starvation, Wills continued his observations, stopping only when Burke ordered all non-essential baggage, including Wills's scientific instruments, to be discarded.

Becker, left in Menindie and then involved in William Wright's ill-fated attempt to bring men and supplies up to the camp on Cooper's Creek, continued to make scientific drawings. The quality of his work is impeccable but he was not a systematic observer - the artist in him kept breaking out. In the album of his surviving drawings, microscopically accurate drawings mingle with romantic landscapes and portraits, just as in his journals, scientific data and whimsical anecdotes sit side by side.