Full title: 'The snakes of Australia: an illustrated and descriptive catalogue of all known species'.

Gerard Krefft's 'Snakes of Australia' (1869) attempted to describe all known Australian snakes, summarising existing knowledge and presenting it in an accessible manner. Despite not including much new scientific information, the work was well received by his contemporaries, as there was minimal literature on Australian snakes available in this period. The Australasian commented on 4 June 1870 'For a scientific writer his style is singularly clear and familiar, and his descriptions of the reptiles very graphic and intelligible. He has evidently made a close study of the characteristics and habits of these handsomely hideous creatures.'

Krefft (1830-1881) was one of Australia's first professional herpetologists and an early proponent of Darwinian ideas in the Australian colonies. Born in Germany, and migrating to Melbourne in 1852 during the Gold Rush, he was a self-taught naturalist who capitalised on his connections to establish himself in colonial science, gaining the position of Assistant Curator at the Australian Museum in 1860, and appointed Curator and Secretary in 1864.

While based at the Australian Museum, Krefft worked hard to develop their collections, collecting in the local area around Sydney, and focusing especially on snakes. He published around 200 scientific articles in his lifetime and was the first to describe the Rough-Scaled Snake (described as Hoplocephalus carinatus by Krefft in 1863 and now known as Tropidechis carinatus), the Highland Copperhead Snake, (described as Hoplocephalus ramsayi by Krefft in 1864 and now known as Austrelaps ramsayi), and the Stephens' Banded Snake (described as Hoplocephalus stephensi by Krefft in 1869.) His most well-known publication was 'Snakes of Australia', which he completed between 1865 and 1869.

'Snakes of Australia' was illustrated by Harriet Scott (1830-1907) and Helena Forde (1832-1910), daughters of English lawyer, grazier and entomologist Alexander Walker Scott (1800-1883). Scott was a founding member of the Entomological Society of New South Wales, a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales and a Trustee of the Australian Museum. The Scott sisters, as they were known, spent their early childhood in Sydney, where they had informal drawing lessons from artist Conrad Martens. Helena and Harriet Scott were encouraged to pursue natural history by their father, who passed on his knowledge and artistic training and introduced them to his scientific network in Sydney.

The Scott family lived on Ash Island in the Hunter River from 1846 to 1866, where they were visited by many prominent naturalists of the day. Here the sisters assisted their father in a project to describe Australian moths and butterflies which would eventually result in the publication 'Australian Lepidoptera and their transformations' (1864). This project honed their skills in collecting, observing and illustrating the natural world. Their illustrations for 'Australian Lepidoptera and their transformations' gained the Scott Sisters a reputation as fine natural history illustrators, and they were commissioned to illustrate other works.

Krefft was a frequent visitor to Ash Island, helping Harriet and Helena find work as illustrators, and employing them to illustrate both 'Snakes of Australia' (1869) and 'Mammals of Australia' (1871). Krefft wrote in the preface to 'Snakes of Australia' 'The gifted daughters of A. W. Scott... have done everything in their power to give correct figures of the reptiles illustrated.'

'Snakes of Australia' was produced in an edition of 700. It was published by the Government Printer in Sydney and financed by Krefft. The Scott sisters did the original artwork and lithography, while the printing was done by the companies Gibbs, Shallard & Co. and J. A. Engel. The work includes a systematic index and a geographical index listing venomous and non-venomous snakes.

Physical Description

100 pages with 12 hand-coloured lithographs. Fully bound in coated red bookcloth with a hollow back binding and gold lettering on the spine. National Museum of Victoria binding.


While not including much that was new to science, 'Snakes of Australia' is significant for being the first dedicated work on Australian Snakes. Krefft was an expert in the field, and the work was an important reference that summarised and collated what was known about Australian snakes at the time it was published. The publication was praised at the Sydney Intercolonial Exhibition of 1870 and Harriet Scott and Helena Forde received a Very High Commendation for the striking artwork that accompanied Krefft's text.

'Snakes of Australia' is also significant as an example of women's participation in science. The Scott sisters were among the first professional female artists to work in science in Australia. In 1864 their contribution to science was recognised when they were made honorary members of the Entomological Society of New South Wales. As women they were unable to become full members, and this was rare acknowledgement for women of this period.

Although best remembered for their entomological work, they also illustrated plants, mammals, shells and reptiles, including illustrations for Alexander Walker Scott's 'Mammalia, Recent and Extinct' (1873), J. C. Cox's 'Monographs of Australian Land Shells' (1868) and Gerard Krefft's 'Snakes of Australia' (1869) and 'Mammals of Australia' (1871). They also undertook commercial work, designing Australia's first Christmas cards in 1878-79.

More Information

  • Author

    G Krefft, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1869

  • Artist and Lithographer

    Helena Forde, 1869

  • Artist & Lithographer

    Harriet Scott, 1869

  • Category


  • Discipline

    Rare Books

  • Type of item


  • References

    Australian Museum (2020) Gerard Krefft, Curator and Secretary, 1861-1874, Australian Museum Website, accessed 8 February 2024. [Link 1] Docker, Rose (2018) Harriet and Helena: The Scott sisters, The Australian Museum Website, accessed 8 February 2024. [Link 2] Dorey, Fran (2018) Biography of Alexander Walker Scott, The Australian Museum Website, accessed 8 February 2024. [Link 3] Finney, Vanessa (2018) Transformations : harriet and helena scott, colonial sydney's finest natural history painters, Sydney, NSW, NewSouth Publishing. Nancarrow, Jenny (2009) 'Gerard Krefft: A singular man', Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 121(1): 146-154. Moyal, Anne (1986) A bright & savage land?: scientists in colonial australia. Sydney: Collins. Rutledge, Martha and Whitley, G. P. 'Krefft, Johann Ludwig (Louis) (1830-1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, [Link 4] published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 16 January 2024. 'The Snakes Of Australia' (4 June 1870) The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946), viewed 11 Jan 2024. [Link 5] Williams D, Wüster W, Fry B G (2006) 'The good, the bad and the ugly: Australian snake taxonomists and a history of the taxonomy of Australia's venomous snakes', Toxicon, 48 (7) Available at: doi:10.1016/j.toxicon.2006.07.016

  • Keywords

    Artistic Practices, Sciences, Scientific Research, Natural History, Engraving, Printing, Illustrations, Snakes, Reptiles