MUELLER, Baron Sir Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von (1825-1896)

MUELLER, Baron Sir Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von (1825-1896)
botanist and explorer
son of Frederick Mueller, a commissioner of customs, and his wife Louisa, was born at Rostock, Germany, on 30 June 1825. His family was of Danish origin (C. Daley, information from relatives of von Mueller). Both parents died while he was young, but he was given a good education by his grandparents. Apprenticed to a chemist at 15 he passed the pharmaceutical examinations and studied botany under Professor Nolte at Kiel. He received the degree of doctor of philosophy when he was 21 for a thesis on the Common Shepherd's Purse, and began a collection of the plants of Schleswig-Holstein. He had also been studying for a medical career but in 1847, having been advised to go to a warmer climate, he sailed for Australia with two sisters. He arrived at Adelaide on 18 December 1847 and found employment as a chemist. Shortly afterwards he obtained 20 acres of land not far from Adelaide, but after living on it for a few months returned to his former employment. He contributed a few papers on botanical subjects to German periodicals, and in 1852 sent a paper to the Linnean Society at London on "The Flora of South Australia". In the same year he removed to Melbourne where he was appointed government botanist, and in 1853 made an exploration north east from Melbourne to the then almost unknown Buffalo Ranges. From there Mueller went to the upper reaches of the Goulburn River and across Gippsland to the coast. The neighbourhoods of Port Albert and Wilson's Promontory were explored, and the journey of some 1500 miles was completed along the coast to Melbourne. During this journey large additions were made to the botanical knowledge of Australia. He began making collections of dried specimens, and, getting in touch with Sir William Hooker of Kew, sent him duplicate specimens, thus beginning the correspondence with him and his son that was continued for the remainder of Mueller's life. In November he made another expedition to the north-west of Victoria, going up the Murray to Albury he turned south-east to Omeo along the Tambo River, and easterly to the mouth of the Snowy River. When Mueller reached Melbourne again he had travelled about 2500 miles and had increased the number of known Victorian plants by about a fourth. Towards the end of 1854 he again explored north-eastern Victoria, ascending and naming Mounts Hotham and Latrobe, and adding considerably to the known alpine plants of Australia. He went through many hardships, and though often short of food succeeded in living on the country as few others could have done. On 18 July 1855 he started from Sydney as naturalist to the exploring expedition led by A. A. Gregory (q.v.) to the Northern Territory. The expedition was successful, and Mueller for his part found nearly 800 species new to Australia. He published in this year his Definitions of Rare or Hitherto Undescribed Australian Plants. In 1857 Rostock university gave him the honorary degree of doctor of medicine, and in the same year he was appointed director of the botanical gardens at Melbourne.
Mueller immediately arranged for the building of what is now known as the national herbarium, and began his account of new plants discovered in Australia, Fragmenta Phytographiae Australiae, which was written in Latin and published by the government of Victoria in 11 volumes between 1858 and 1881. Under Mueller's care the gardens became very popular, large numbers of plants had been planted and labelled, and the contents of the herbarium were continually increasing. Later Mueller's private collection and other gifts were made to it, so that eventually an enormous collection was labelled and housed in it. In 1858 Sir William Hooker was suggesting to Mueller that he should come to England and write a systematic monograph on the Australian flora. Mueller found himself unable to do this and eventually agreed to collaborate in a work of this kind to be undertaken by Mr George Bentham. It had been hoped that this work could have been begun in 1859, but it was not until 1863 that the first volume appeared. Meanwhile Mueller had published in 1860-2 volume I of The Plants Indigenous to the Colony of Victoria, but abandoned this book in favour of the larger work. The title-page of this read Flora Australiensis: A Description of of the Plants of the Australian Territory, by George Bentham, F.R.S., P.L.S., assisted by Ferdinand Mueller, M.D., F.R.S. and L.S. The seventh and last volume was published in 1878. In the meantime Mueller had published in 1864-5 a fine collection of drawings illustrating The Plants Indigenous to the Colony of Victoria, and had prepared other plates which were eventually published under the editorship of A. J. Ewart (q.v.) in 1910.
Mueller had been leading a busy, happy and successful life. Few men, however able, have been honoured by being elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London, at the age of 36. In addition to his botanical labours he had done further exploring in Western Australia, and had encouraged and helped the leading explorers of his time, including the Forrests (q.v.), the Gregorys (q.v.), McDouall Stuart (q.v.) and Ernest Giles (q.v.). He was known and honoured both in the old world and the new, but in 1873 he received a setback which was a source of regret to him for the remainder of his life. He had done an enormous amount of excellent work at the botanical gardens in spite of an inadequate staff and a deficient water supply. But he was primarily a man of science, for him a botanical gardens "must be mainly scientific and predominantly instructive". A demand arose for more attention to be given to the aesthetic side of the gardens, and in 1873 Mueller resigned. He retained his position as government botanist, and suffered no loss of salary, but he never quite lost a sense of grievance. Nothing, however, could check his powers of work. His best-known book, Select Plants Readily Eligible for Industrial Culture or Naturalization in Victoria, was published about the end of 1876. With a slight change in the title to Select Extra-Tropical Plants this volume ran into several editions in the following 19 years. In 1877 he did some exploring at the request of the Western Australian government inland from Shark's Bay, and in the same year published his Introduction to Botanic Teachings at the Schools of Victoria. In 1879 he published Part I of The Native Plants of Victoria, which he was never able to complete, and in the same year appeared the first decade of Eucalyptographia: A Descriptive Atlas of the Eucalypts of Australia and the adjoining Islands. The tenth decade of this appeared in 1884. Mueller's Systematic Census of Australian Plants, Part I, was published in 1882, and in the following year he was awarded the Clarke medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales. Part II (sic) of his Key to the System of Victorian Plants appeared in 1885, and Part I (sic) in 1888. In 1886 he published Description and Illustrations of the Myoporinous Plants of Australia, and in 1887-8, The Iconography of Australian Species of Acacias and Cognate Species. The Second Systematic Census of Australian Plants was published in 1889, and in 1889-91 his Iconography of Australian Salsolaceous Plants. His Iconography of Candolleaceous Plants began to appear in 1892 but only one decade was published. He was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Society of London in 1888, and in 1890 was elected president of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science at the meeting held in Melbourne in that year. Working until his last short illness he died at Melbourne on 10 October 1896. He never married. In 1871 he was made an hereditary baron by the King of Wurtemburg. He was created C.M.G. in 1869 and K.C.M.G. in 1879. He was a fellow or member of numberless scientific societies all over the world, and he is commemorated by his name having been given to mountains, rivers and other geographical features in Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, South America, and other parts of the world. After his death the Mueller memorial medal was founded, and is awarded by the council of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science every second year to the author of the most important contribution to natural knowledge, preference being given to work referring to Australia.
Mueller was a simple, kindly man, a devout supporter of the Lutheran Church, whose compelling interest was the advancement of knowledge. He had a passion for work and nothing could be allowed to stand in its way. He at least once contemplated marriage, but put it aside because he feared his work might suffer, and the same reason prevented him taking a holiday or visiting Europe where he would have been received with the greatest honour. Most of his more important works have already been mentioned, but he also wrote many pamphlets and articles. An incomplete bibliography of his writings is at the national herbarium, Melbourne. He corresponded with scientists and collectors all over the earth; it has been estimated that 3000 letters from him in one year was not an unusual number. He was interested in all the scientific societies in Australia, and as has been mentioned, was not only an excellent explorer himself, but the encourager and helper of the other explorers of his time. He had no funds to pay assistants in the field, but lived frugally himself and spent a large proportion of his income in the advancement of science. Though essentially modest, like most men he was not free from vanity, and frankly rejoiced in the honours bestowed on him; and, usually the most considerate of men, he could not understand that his assistants liked a limit to their hours of work. To one who suggested at 11 p.m. that "he must be getting home," he said, "but we haven't finished yet". He was a great scientist, but recognized that science should not exist for its own sake merely, and was always interested in the useful side of botany, did much to bring the value of the eucalytpi and acacias before other countries, and had enlightened views about afforestation at a time when much of the timber of Australia was being ruthlessly destroyed. He was a great man and a great botanist, with an unrivalled capacity for sustained work.
C. Daley, Baron Sir Ferdinand Von Mueller (reprinted from The Victorian Historical Magnzine, vol. X); The History of Flora Australiensis (reprinted from The Victorian Naturalist, vol. XLIV); Sir J. D. Hooker, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, vol. LXIII, p. XXXII; Sir W. Baldwin Spencer, The Victorian Naturalist, October 1896; The Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, vol. XXI, p. 823; private information. See also list of "Works Consulted" in Daley's monograph.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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