Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller (1825 - 1896)

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von Mueller was born Ferdinand Muller, in Schleswig-Holstein, an area in dispute between Denmark and Germany. His father died of tuberculosis when he was nine, his mother when he was 14 and his older sister when he was 17. In those days it was a common cause of death, and thought to be hereditary, the real cause being unknown for another 50 years. A lifelong fear of tuberculosis was the main reason for him migrating to Australia, and it deterred him from ever returning to Europe. Fortunately, before she died his mother arranged his apprenticeship with an apothecary. As plants played a basic role in pharmacy, he studied Botany and collected plants while studying for his degree in Pharmacy. An outstanding student, he was awarded his PhD in Botany at the age of 21. A year later, in 1847, he sailed to South Australia with his two surviving sisters, and quickly became naturalised.

Soon he was exploring and collecting in the Flinders Ranges. In 1852 he moved to Melbourne, a town booming in the gold rush, and was immediately appointed Government Botanist. He continued exploring and collecting in Victoria, then in 1855 joined, as botanist, an expedition to northern Australia led by the Gregory brothers, which was to take 16 months. They sailed from Sydney, with all their horses and equipment, to the northwest coast of Australia. Landing at the mouth of the Victoria River, they explored on foot to its source. They continued to the south, to the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, then down through Cape York back to Moreton Bay. Muller was far from an ideal member for a small, isolated exploring party in such difficult and dangerous conditions. He was a peculiar character: he had enthusiasm and endurance, but was unscrupulous, ambitious, humourless and egotistic. However, he did bring back thousands of specimens, many of them new, as well as much hard-won knowledge of every sort of plant that could be eaten in an emergency.

His name changed to Mueller, he started corresponding with other botanists, Sir William Hooker at Kew and Asa Gray at Harvard. He also corresponded with Charles Darwin, whom he venerated, but when Darwin published Origin of Species Mueller could not reconcile evolution with his devout Lutheran religious views. A prolific author, he soon became a botanist of international repute, reaping a great harvest of titles, decorations and honorary degrees - of which he was thought to be inordinately fond. In 1860 he became a member of Royal Society of London at the unusually young age of 36, and won its Gold Medal in 1888. He was supported by Lois Pasteur for election to the Institute de France. He was created a hereditary baron by the king of Wrttemberg in 1871, and he received a British knighthood in 1879. He wrote 2,000 letters per year and exchanged thousands of seeds and plants with other botanists. His distribution of Eucalypt seeds modified environments and created new micro-climates in every continent of the world. Said to be the father of forestry in Australia, he planted 30,000 trees and was the first to plant Marram Grass to anchor coastal sand dunes.

There was a turbulent stage in his personal life when he became engaged to a very determined middle-aged spinster, but then thought better of the idea. However, to avoid being sued for breach of promise he was obliged to declare that he was impotent. He never married.

In 1857 he was appointed Director of the Melbourne Botanic Garden, but he was no gardener. Instead he attempted to make the garden into a living botanical textbook, without the slightest concession to ornament, not even a lawn. After years of quarrelling with politicians he was removed from his post in 1873 in response to popular clamor - and replaced by William Guilfoyle, the talented landscapist who was responsible for the present design. von Mueller was installed in a specially-built library and herbarium; but although he worked for another twenty-three years just outside the gates, he never entered the garden again.

Many mountains and rivers in Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica are named after him, as are many plants, including the palmsCalamus muelleri, Livistona muelleri and Heterospathe muelleriana.

Contributed by:

Ian Edwards

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