Amalie Dietrich: Fearless & eccentric naturalist – Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land

Moving to Hamburg in 2009 I found myself a flat in Amalie-Dietrich-Stieg. Curious about the woman whose name was my new address I did a little research and found she really was quite a unique person… Amalie Dietrich became a well-known and respected naturalist at a time when scientific careers for women were anything but common. What makes her story even more exceptional is the fact that she was raised in a poor home and received only very basic education.

Born in 1821 as Amalie Nelle in the small Saxon village Siebenlehn, she attended the local village school and afterwards had to help in the family business making bags. As a feature in „Deutschlandfunk Kultur“ tells us, it is the chance meeting of Wilhelm Dietrich, which turns her life around: At age 26, she marries him – and the botanist and pharmacist teaches her the basics of botany and collecting plants. Amalie is not just a good scholar, she finds her passion in being a naturalist. In the years following, Amalie and her husband wander through the country, collecting plants and herbs and making a living of selling them to pharmacists. The birth of their daughter, Caritas, in 1848 doesn’t stop the couple from travelling, as the child is often left with changing foster families. When her husband wants to settle down a few years later, Amalie continues to pursue her passion on her own, travelling on foot for several month with a dog pulling her cart, often sleeping under the stars, as the website „fembio.org“ writes.

In 1861, the Dietrich couple parts –  sources either say Wilhelm thought Amalie was dead after she had suffered from typhoid fever on a trip to Holland (e.g. German Wikipedia Entry) or she found out he had an affair during her travels (e.g. Australian Science Archive Project). No matter the reason, afterwards Amalie decides to go to Hamburg with her daughter. She had heard about Johan Godeffroy, a Hamburg businessman and ship owner. He was planning an expedition to Australia with the aim of obtaining new exhibits for his natural science museum – and Amalie set her mind on being part of this adventure.

But as an article in Hamburg newspaper „Abendblatt“ states, Godeffroy doesn’t want a woman collecting for him; especially since this woman did not receive any formal academic training. But Amalie is persistent – since she has earned a reputation as a passionate collector and accurate observer in some academic circles, she visits Godeffroy again, bringing several letters of recommendation. She manages to change Godeffroys mind and gets hired. Immediately, she starts to learn English, reads everything she can find about Australia and learns to shoot. On May 15th 1863 she boards the „La Rochelle“ and arrives in Brisbane in August. Caritas is left with acquaintance in Hamburg.

By Christian Wilhelm Allers – Scanned by Herbarium Hamburgense. (via WikiCommons)

In Australia Amalie spent most of her time alone in nature, being described as fearless, single-minded and absolutely unconcerned about personal comfort (see “Australian Dictionary of Biography”). She collected grasses, funghi, algae, fish, birds, reptiles and much more, shipping box after box to Hamburg.  She traveled across the continent and seemed more than content with her decision: „I speedily forget the discomforts of heat and mosquitoes in the unbounded feeling of joy that animates me when, at every step, I light upon treasures that no one has secured before me.“ (quoted after „Australian Dictionary of Biography“).

Her employer Godeffroy is full of praise for her, and extended her contract several times and was constantly sending new orders. However, one thing casts a dark shadow on the story of Amalie Dietrich: She is said to have shipped remains of Aborigines to Germany – whether she acquired the skeletons through grave robbery or even encouraged settlers to shoot an aborigine could never be fully figured out (see „Deutschlandfunk Kultur“, „Hamburger Abendblatt“ and „The Dietrich Project“).

She continued her work in Australia for 10 whole years and in 1873 finally came back to Hamburg – bringing two sea eagles she tamed herself with her. The years in Australia have left their marks: The „fembio.org“ project cites Amalie‘ s daughter describing her mother‘ s face as weathered and criss-crossed by a thousand wrinkles. Back in Hamburg, she stays with the family Godeffroy, working on her collections in the museum, and later working as a curator at the botanical museum of Hamburg. In 1891, she dies at the age of 69 after having contracted pneumonia while visiting her daughter.

From the moment she found her passion she pursued it relentlessly and dedicated her whole life to being a naturalist. Although several plants are named after her and she is described as one of the most important naturalists of her time, most people haven’t heard about Amalie Dietrich. But now YOU have.


Written by Karen Schäfer (she/her) from Hamburg, Germany. Follow her on Instagram! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.


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