Allan Cunningham was born in Wimbledon, Surrey on 13 July, 1791, educated at a private school in Putney. He worked for a time in conveyancing, but law was not to his liking and be accepted a position as assistant to the manager of Kew Gardens, W. T. Aiton.
Aiton recommended Cunningham to Sir Joseph Banks and he obtained an appointment as a botanical collector. In 1814 he went to Brazil to collect specimens and remained there for two years. He was then ordered to New South Wales. Almost immediately Cunningham joined Oxley’s expedition to the west of the Blue Mountains.
From 1817 to 1822 he was part of P. P. King’s surveys of the Australian coasts. His notes on the botanical results of the survey were thought important enough to be published in a German translation. In 1822 Cunningham resumed his botanical researches in New South Wales.
He also began a series of explorations during which he discovered Pandora's Pass through the Liverpool Range (1823), discovered the Darling Downs (1827) and found a way to them from the shores of Moreton Bay, Cunningham’s Gap (1828).
In 1831 he returned to England where he spent his time arranging his collections of specimens in the herbarium and preparing papers for publication. On the death of Charles Frazer, the Colonial Botanist in 1831, Cunningham was offered the position in New South Wales, but he declined it in favour of his brother Richard.
When Richard died in 1835 Allan Cunningham was once again offered the position which he accepted and returned to New South Wales in 1837. When he found he was actually expected to do a great deal of gardening including growing vegetables for the governor’s table as part of his appointment, he resigned after a few months.
He then went to New Zealand in 1838 where he botanised for six months, returning to Sydney in October seriously ill. While his health steadily deteriorated he continued collecting and died on 27th June 1839 in Sydney. Cunningham’s achievements as both botanist and explorer are significant.
His discovery of the rich agricultural area of the Darling Downs and the gap leading to them was of such importance in itself as to justify all his journeys. His botanic work has been honoured by the giving of his name to a number of Australian trees.
Australian Encyclopedia Vol. 3 Sydney : Grolier Society of Australia, 1965
Australian Dictionary of Biography Carlton, Vic. : Melbourne University Press, 1966-
Mc Minn, W. G. “Allan Cunningham: botanist and explorer” Carlton, Vic. : Melbourne University Press, 1970
LH files – LH/Cunningham, Allan