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Who was Rex Bretnall?

By: Ms Prue Walker, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 23 Apr 2015

The mysterious young man in the photo.

Conchological staff of the Australian Museum

Conchological staff of the Australian Museum
Photographer:  © Courtesy of the Australian Museum

When I wrote a blog about my changing response to this image, I was asked about the identity of the younger man in the photo. The answer to that was easy: he was Rex Bretnall - it said so on the caption.

But of course that didn’t actually help much, because the real question was: ‘who was Rex Bretnall?’ and that was a much trickier question because we had surprisingly little information about him.

Having started work at the Museum in 1907, he was granted leave of absence to serve in World War I in late 1915. After his discharge from military service he returned to the Museum, and in 1919 was promoted to the position of Zoologist in charge of Lower Marine Invertebrates. But in December of 1921 he retired on a ‘break-down’ pension, due to ill health as a result of his war service.

So it was logical to check with the War Memorial, and there, on the embarkation rolls I found a record of one, Reginald Wheeler Bretnall, aged 23. He was a slightly built young man, but he managed to join up in December 1915 after at least one previous attempt, at which he was rejected because his chest measurement was considered deficient.

He embarked for active service on April Fools’ Day in 1916 and sailed to Egypt on the SS Makarini. By May of 1916, he had become ill with a septic leg and measles, but perhaps these diagnoses were premature. His medical report from August 1917, states that he suffered from ‘rheumatic fever last year in Egypt [and is] now short of breath on slightest exertion’.

The report goes on to detail that Rex was anaemic, debilitated and tremulous, with a faint diastolic murmur and a collapsing pulse. It concludes that this was caused by ‘ordinary military service’, but these words have been subsequently crossed out and replaced with the words ‘not so caused’.

He returned to Australia in October 1917 on the SS Port Lyttelton, and on 19th January 1918 he was discharged from the army due to valvular disease of the heart (VDH).

Intriguingly, when searching through Trove for accounts of Rex in the newspapers, I came across the following two plays:

Nostalgia, Rex W. Bretnall, performed at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music on 24th April, 1936
Snaky Joe’s Loss, Rex W. Bretnall, Radio Play broadcast on ABC Radio, Sydney, 17th September, 1936

This was a complete change of direction and it makes me wonder what Reginald Wheeler Bretnall would have achieved if he had been well enough to continue his career at the Museum.

For more information about the plays written by Rex Bretnall see:

[AUSTRALIAN FILMS. (1936, April 25). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 21. Retrieved March 25, 2015, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17328600]

[2BL SYDNEY. (1936, September 17). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954) , p. 5. Retrieved March 25, 2015, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article140499917]