Naturalist, writer, and professor of geology.
A new biography of Dieffenbach, Johann Karl Ernst appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Ernst Dieffenbach had a brief but important stay in New Zealand during the formative years of the country. He was born in 1811 at Giessen, Germany, the son of a Lutheran clergyman-professor. He studied medicine at Giessen and Zurich and graduated M.D. in 1835. Accused by the Austrian Government of fomenting trouble, he was compelled to flee to Switzerland, and then to take refuge in London where he eked out a precarious living by teaching German and contributing to medical and scientific journals. In 1839 he sailed to New Zealand in the Tory as surgeon and naturalist for the New Zealand Company. In the course of surveying the country for the Company, Dieffenbach made extensive journeys into the interior of the North Island, exploring Tongariro, Taupo, Waikato, and Whaingaroa, and he made the first successful climb of Mount Egmont. He also visited the Chatham Islands.
As well as preparing numerous reports to the New Zealand Company, he sent collections of plants, animals, and rocks, and after his work for the Company was completed, offered to make a scientific exploration of New Zealand for the Government. But Governor Gipps could not even sanction the travelling expenses and in October 1841 Dieffenbach had to return to England, where he published his report on the Chatham Islands in the New Zealand Journal. His book, Travel in New Zealand, appeared in 1843. Two years later he contributed a report on the geology of the country to the British Association.
Dieffenbach's books are written in a style acceptable to the modern reader; clear, and without those affectations so common to the period, and marked by racy sentences. His observations were acute—in the realm of natural history he was prepared to record rather than to theorise. Nor was he afraid to criticise certain aspects of the colonisation of New Zealand. He attacked the speculative buying of town properties which forced up prices, and he greatly admired the Maori in comparison with other native races and feared for their future. He frankly assessed the disadvantages, as well as the possibilities, of New Zealand as a field for colonisation, in a manner that might not have endeared him to the New Zealand Company.
Attempts to return to New Zealand were unsuccessful. After the revolution of 1848 he taught at Giessen, where he was later appointed supernumerary professor of geology. He died at Giessen in October 1855.
by John Bruce Waterhouse, M.SC.(N.Z.), PH.D. (CANTAB.), New Zealand Geological Survey, Lower Hutt.
- Great Britain Official Papers, 1842/569
- Ausland,1874, No. 4, “Ernst Dieffenbach, der Erforscher Neu-Seelands”
- Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, Vol. 5.