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Bornemissza, George Francis (1924–2014)

by Attila Urmenyhazi

from Obituaries Australia

George Bornemissza, n.d.

George Bornemissza, n.d.

George F. Bornemissza was born in the town of Baja, on the banks of the River Danube in southern Hungary on 11 February 1924 to Katalin and Ferenc Bornemissza, a civil engineer.

Both parents were from the landed gentry and were able to ensure the best education in Baja for their children. George began collecting and studying beetles in the forests around his home town during his mid-teens and dedicated much of his spare time to volunteering in museums and scientific institutions in Budapest, where he pursued his tertiary studies. He graduated in science from the University of Budapest, but by 1948, with the onset of a repressive and ruthless brand of communism in Hungary, he fled to Austria. Bornemissza obtained his PhD in Zoology at the University of Innsbruck in 1950 and migrated soon after to Australia as a Displaced Person. He sailed for Australia on the ‘Anna Salen,’ and, on 1 January 1951, set foot in Fremantle, Western Australia.

Bornemissza’s first career appointment was that of graduate assistant in October 1951, when he became a staff member of the Zoology Department at the University of Western Australia. He was grateful to his new homeland and wanted to repay Australia by advancing the study of beetles (coleopterology). After many field studies across the State, he concluded, in a pasture at Wooroloo, 60 km north-east of Perth that, unlike in Europe, native dung beetles do not devour cow pats and thus, do not increase soil fertility, since they prefer the droppings of native marsupials. While carrying on his field research work aimed at the reducing populations of bush flies and blood sucking buffalo flies, which were infesting livestock and costing farmers millions of dollars annually to control, Bornemissza observed that their eradication could only be through biological control. As a result, he proposed the introduction of exotic bovine dung beetles to Western Australia.

In December 1954, Bornemissza joined the CSIRO in Canberra as a Research Scientist in the Division of Entomology. In 1965, the CSIRO approved funding for a national project to control the bush fly plagues which afflicted human and bovine populations during the summer months, under George’s scientific direction. In May 1967 he established a research station for the ‘Dung Beetle Project’ in Pretoria, South Africa. He travelled through 32 countries, carefully selecting bovine beetles of all sorts for their introduction and breeding in Australia under stringent quarantine control conditions in the laboratories of the CSIRO, Canberra. Fifty-four species were brought in from overseas, but only 28 of them subsequently established themselves. With the release of 100,000 dung beetles across the continent, the 10 year national project at last yielded results and, within a few years, was shown to benefit the farmers and ultimately the people of Australia. It was the beginning of the end of the Australian ‘bush salute’ that had characterised travel in the bush and, furthermore, heralded the start of a new, ‘eating outdoors’ lifestyle, something considered impossible in earlier times. Between 1957 and 1983 Bornemissza published 18 scientific papers under the aegis of the CSIRO, which widened his reputation as a world authority in his field of expertise.

Retiring from the CSIRO in 1983, Bornemissza and his family settled in Hobart, where he devoted his time, with a perfectionist’s attention, to his other passion in life: his massive private insect collections made up of stunningly spectacular specimens. The first post-retirement public display of some of his beetle collection was in Canberra, which he donated to the Australian National Insect Collection at the CSIRO. The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery was another beneficiary of his extensive collections of rare, colourful and intricately mounted beetle and insect specimens, which are named after him and have received considerable public acclaim.

Bornemissza continued to work to foster public awareness about the usefulness of beetles in the eco-system, and was involved in conservation issues, supplying specialist knowledge to nature and environmental support foundations. Hard work was his ethic until his final years. In the course of his career, he discovered, hitherto unknown by science, twenty insects and beetles which were later named after him. His favourite among these was “Bornemissza’s stag beetle” (Hoploghonus bornemisszae), which he discovered at a Pyengana property’s virgin wet woodland, in North-East Tasmania. That beetle is one of the rarest and most spectacular insects of the State.

The honours bestowed on him were the Britannica Award Gold Medal (1973), the Rolex Award for Enterprise (1981), the Medal of the Order of Australia (2001) for services to science and entomology, Fellowship of the Alexander von Humboldt Society, and the CSIRO Service from Science Award (2003). He was made an Emeritus Fellow of Entomology by the CSIRO in 2006, while the ‘Australian Geographic’ voted him Conservationist of the Year in 2008.

Dr. George Bornemissza directed the ingenious, game-changing introduction of the exotic bovine dung beetle into Australia, which indirectly brought forth soil fertility and an increase in agricultural production to boost the national economy. These facts are well known Australia-wide and are highly appreciated by academia, scientific colleagues and government authorities. The author of one of the most successful biological control introductions of exotic species in history, he passed away on 10 April 2014, in Hobart.

Original publication

  • Obituaries Australia, 2014

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Citation details

Attila Urmenyhazi, 'Bornemissza, George Francis (1924–2014)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bornemissza-george-francis-18719/text30318, accessed 25 September 2017.

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