Who was Ferdinand von Mueller?
Ferdinand von Mueller was a German-Australian geographer and botanist who founded the National Herbarium of Victoria. Over the course of his extensive career, he served as the government botanist for the then colony of Victoria and later director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. One of Australia's most prominent 19th century scientists, he ventured into botany at quite a young age. Born in Germany, he was just 15 when he began his study of the vegetation of the Schleswig-Holstein area, a project that would take him several years. He proceeded to study botany under Professor Ernst Ferdinand Nolte at Kiel University and earned his doctorate with a thesis on the plants of the southern regions of Schleswig. His interest in studying plants from different regions led to a love for exploration as well. As a young man he moved to Australia where he explored the areas around Mount Arden and Mount Brown and continued his botanical research. Soon he established himself as a reputed botanist and was appointed government botanist for Victoria by Governor Charles La Trobe. He travelled extensively on scientific expeditions and is credited to have discovered nearly 800 species in Australia new to science. Mueller never married and dedicated his entire life to scientific pursuits.
Childhood & Early Life
Ferdinand Jacob Heinrich von Mueller was born on 30 June 1825, to Frederick Mueller, commissioner of customs, and his wife Louise. He had many siblings though only a few survived to adulthood. His parents too died when he was a young boy.
He was raised by his grandparents following the death of his parents. He received a good education and was apprenticed to a chemist when he was 15. Interested in plants from a young age, he began researching on the vegetation of the Schleswig-Holstein area.
After passing his pharmaceutical examinations, he studied botany under Professor Ernst Ferdinand Nolte at Kiel University. He was awarded a Ph.D. in 1847 for a thesis surveying the flora of southern Schleswig.
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Around this time, his sister Bertha was advised to move to a warmer climate for her health. On the suggestion of the great botanist Ludwig Preiss, Mueller and his two surviving sisters moved to Australia in December 1847.
He found employment as a chemist with Moritz J. Heuzenroeder. In his leisure time he would study the local flora, exploring places like Mount Gambier, Flinders Ranges, and Lake Torrens. He also explored Mount Arden and Mount Brown during his first year.
Intending to start a farm, he acquired several acres of land. However, this plan did not go as envisioned and he returned to his former employment. In 1852 he contributed a paper to the Linnean Society of London on ‘The Flora of South Australia’ which gained him recognition in botanical circles.
In 1853, Mueller was appointed government botanist for Victoria by Governor Charles La Trobe. In this position, he travelled around Port Albert and Wilson's Promontory, collecting several specimens that had potential for industrial and medicinal uses.
From 1854 to 1872, he served as a member of the Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science, which later became the Philosophical Institute of Victoria.
In 1855, he was appointed botanist to the North West Australia Expedition, which left Sydney in July that year. It was an extensive expedition which covered around 5,000 miles in 16 months. Mueller studied some 2,000 species of which about 800 were new to Australian botany.
After his return to Melbourne in 1857, he was appointed director of the Botanical Gardens while still retaining his post as government botanist. In this position he arranged for the construction of a herbarium to which he contributed his own extensive collections. He was also responsible for exchanging seeds and plants with botanists throughout Australia as well as Europe and America.
Ferdinand von Mueller recognized the potential uses of several species of flora in medicine and industry. He realized the commercial value of Victorian timber in the manufacture of charcoal, gunpowder, tar, vinegar, spirits and potash, and also recognized the medicinal potential of eucalyptus. By being aware of the practical applications of his discoveries, he helped the citizens of Victoria in making financial gains though he himself did not make any profits.
A prolific writer, he published over 800 papers and major works on Australian botany which include ‘The Natural Capabilities of the Colony of Victoria’ (1875), ‘Select Plants Readily Eligible for Industrial Culture or Naturalization in Victoria’ (1876), several volumes of ‘Fragmenta phytographica Australiae’ (1862–1881), and two volumes of the ‘Plants of Victoria’ (1860–1865).
Over the course of his extensive career Mueller observed some 2,000 species, of which about 800 were new to Australian botany. He played a major role in spreading knowledge about the medicinal qualities of the blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) throughout the world and introduced the species in countries across Europe, Africa, and the extratropical portions of South America.
Awards & Achievements
Mueller was appointed a fellow of the Royal Society in 1861, and knighted as Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1879.
In 1883, he was awarded the Clarke Medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales.
He was also the recipient of the Royal Medal (1888).
Personal Life & Legacy
Ferdinand von Mueller never married though he was briefly engaged to Euphemia Henderson in 1863 and Rebecca Nordt in 1865. He was very close to his sisters of whom one predeceased him.
He died on 10 October 1896, at the age of 71.
A species of Australian lizard, Lerista muelleri, is named in his honor.