Hofmeister, Wilhelm Friedrich Benedikt

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Hofmeister, Wilhelm Friedrich Benedikt

(b. Leipzig, Germany, 18 May 1824 ; d. Lindenau, near Leipzig, 12 January 1877)


Hofmeister was the son of Friedrich Hofmeister and his second wife, the former Frederike Seidenschnur. The father was the highly successful founder of a music shop and music publishing house in Leipzig, and his home was frequented by men of the arts and sciences. After a friendship with H. G. L. Reichenbach awakened in him a serious interest in botany, he constructed a large herbarium and acquired extensive grounds in a suburb, where he established a botanical garden and built a large home. He increasingly devoted the general bookshop that he kept as an adjunct to his music business to botanical books, some of which he published himself.1 In 1834 he was elected a corresponding member of the Bavarian Botanical Society.2 His occupation is usually given as bookseller, but in 1837 it is listed as teacher of botany.3 His earliest attempts to interest Wilhelm in botany were unsuccessful: the son initially preferred entomology. Also, the father’s interests were largely in the systematics of plants; the son was to concern himself with their structure and function.

Wilhelm Hofmeister completed his secondary schooling in 1839. His education, although excellent, did not lead to the “classical” high school diploma, passport to a German academic career-evidence that such a career was not intended. From 1839 to 1841 he was apprenticed to a family friend, August Cranz, the owner of a music shop in Hamburg. He stayed in the Cranz home and after work was free to pursue his studies. He took language lessons and studied physical science and mathematics by himself.

Returning to Leipzig in 1841, Hofmeister became foreign correspondent in his father’s business. This post initially left him ample time for study and travel. By a settlement drawn up in 1847 but not made public until 1852, the father, for a stipulated pension, turned over the major part of his business—the music enterprises—to his two sons, Adolph and Wilhelm. He retained the bookshop, “largely consisting of botanical works illustrated with copper plates... because of a special inclination towards natural history.”4 Later in 1852 he settled the publishing end of his natural history operation on his son-in-law, Ambrosius Abel. For the next decade Hofmeister combined, almost certainly at eventual damage to his health, a full-time business career as a music publisher with that of a research botanist. To find time for his studies he habitually rose at 5 a.m. The connection with the firm was not broken when he became professor of botany at Heidelberg in 1863.

In 1847 Hofmeister married Agnes Lurgenstein, the daughter of a Leipzig industrialist. They moved into his parents’ house at Reudnitz, where eight of their nine children were born. of these children three died in infancy and three more during Hofmeister’s lifetime; he was survived by three daughters. In the period 1870–1875 his half-brother, his wife, his youngest daughter, and the two surviving sons died. In 1876, less than a year before his death, he married Johanna Schmidt, the daughter of a physician.

Hofmeister was short, dark, and extremely vivacious. His severe myopia had a considerable influence on his botanical achievements. While it was an obvious handicap in the field, it automatically turned his attention to minute detail and to the appreciation of small plants. He was exceptionally skilled in making the microscopic preparations on which his major contributions were based. He brought his face extremely close to the material and thus directly performed delicate manipulations, for which others would have to employ a dissecting microscope (which he also knew how to use to the greatest advantage). On the other hand, his poor eyesight presented major difficulties in gross experimentation and resulted in occasional explosions of rage.5 He stubbornly refused to wear glasses, a disastrous omission in both botany and everyday life.6

The middle of the nineteenth century marked a period of extensive change in botany. Most botanists had been engaged in surveying and classifying the world’s floras; few workers had attempted to understand the structure and function of plants. In this rapidly changing situation German botany was to play a relatively large role. Conversely, French and Anglo-Saxon botanists tended more toward classification. To be sure, some German botanists did work in systematics, classifying collections made by German travelers or “laid off” to willing, competent labor by Kew and other institutions. Yet much of the immediate stimulus for concern with structure and function had come from C. F. B. de Mirbel in France and especially Robert Brown in England; the latter’s contributions to structural botany were possibly more appreciated in Germany than in England, and Hofmeister saw Brown in the light of the founding father.7 Leadership then passed largely to Hugo von Mohl, whom Hofmeister esteemed highly.

Hofmeister began his serious botanical studies in 1841, after entering his father’s business. He came under the influence of Schleiden’s famous textbook, published the following year. Schleiden threw down the gauntlet to the status quo; progress was to come through the study of life history and cell structure, fields in which Hofmeister was entirely self-taught. In the area of systematics, however, he had received valuable private instruction not only from his own father but also from the two Reichenbachs, both professors of botany. H. G. Ludwig Reichenbach had made brilliant, almost visionary, contributions to the overall classification of plants (he coined the name Chlorophyta to denote an inclusive group from algae through cycads);8 his son, H. Gustav Reichenbach, was Hofmeister’s close friend.

In seeming irony, Hofmeister’s first efforts in botany were directed to the demolition of Schleiden’s concept of fertilization, using the methods advocated by Schleiden.9 In flowering plants a preexisting egg cell commences development into an embryo after having been fertilized by something (now known to be a sperm nucleus) brought to it by the tip of the pollen tube. Contrary to this process, Schleiden had supported the interpretation that the embryo arises from the tip of the pollen tube (which thereby becomes the “female” component) and is induced to further development when it reaches the embryo sac. The question was then a matter of wide and tempestuous controversy. Hofmeister’s first paper (1847), dealing with fertilization in the Onagraceae, is stylistically typical. Exclusive of legends, it occupies a mere three pages (six columns). There is no introduction; it starts immediately with the crucial facts that the embryo is derived from a cell preexistent in the embryo sac before fertilization and that the tip of the pollen tube can be removed without damage to the embryo sac and embryo. There is the comment that Schleiden’s views obviously are not applicable to the material at hand. Hofmeister found two of Schleiden’s figures inexplicable; in another the preparation would probably have been clarified with a simple touch of the dissecting needle. The implications are that the facts speak for themselves and those who need further explanation do not deserve it. The embryological observations were splendidly extended to nineteen families in Hofmeister’s first book (1849). Several other embryological contributions followed during the next ten years, during which time the supporters of Schleiden’s view had capitulated.

Hofmeister had already touched on the question of cell division in his first paper. His second (1848), on pollen formation, dealt largely with this phenomenon. The process of cell division was then beginning to be understood hazily; the description of nuclear multiplication was that the nucleus disappeared and two new nuclei were later formed. Hofmeister’s illustrations seem to show that he was one of the earliest workers to observe chromosomes; he had no understanding of their significance.

On the basis of his reputation, the University of Rostock in January 1851 awarded the twenty-six-year-old Hofmeister an honorary doctorate of philosophy and master of liberal arts degree.10 This unusual event preceded the publication later that year of Vergleichende Untersuchungen..., the work for which he is now remembered.

The green land plants, although of tremendous diversity, are a related whole and share a common life cycle, which in its simplest form (in ferns and mosses) is as follows. From the resistant spore there develops a plant body, the gametophyte, bearing reproductive organs, the antheridia and archegonia. The antheridia release cells which become male gametes, or sperm then fertilizes the egg, or female gamete, contained in the archegonium. The fertilized egg develops into an embryo which grows into a second plant body, the sporophyte. Gametophyte and sporophyte constitute two dissimilar generations in determined succession in the life history, an “alternation of generations”—a misapplied phrase purloined from zoology. (Concomitant with fertilization is a doubling of the chromosome number, corrected by a reduction division during spore production. This final understanding was provided by Eduard Strasburger, after Hofmeister’s death.)

At the advanced end of the scale, in the conifers and flowering plants, matters are greatly obscured by the simplification and change in proportion of some features and the superposition and intercalation of others, intelligible through a consideration of intermediate forms. Hofmeister’s predecessors had futilely tried to work backward, from the complex to the simple, attempting to interpret the simpler cryptogams in terms of the complex phanerogams, which they wrongly believed they understood. Floundering and confusion persisted to Hofmeister’s day. The situation was overripe for solution by someone who could arrange all the pieces in order and consider the whole. Hofmeister did.11

In 1849 Hofmeister published a preliminary note in which he corrected certain gross errors of his contemporaries. He stressed that sexuality, in the sense of a fertilization process, was documented both in the cryptogams and phanerogams; and he pointed out its correct place in the life history. Further, the conifers, until then systematically misplaced, are indicated as a key connecting group;12 their life history is briefly interpreted in terms of simpler, intermediate plants.

The message of this note probably did not reach most botanists, but there were exceptions. Mettenius promptly concurred in some of the findings.13 Arthur Henfrey, who had published on flowering plant fertilization, also in opposition to Schleiden, published the paper in English translation.14 Assuming the role of Hofmeister’s apostle, in 1851 he gave a broad report on the issue to the British Association for the Advancement of Science.15 Hofmeister’s next publication, overlooked by his biographers, was a book review (1850) in which he gave a lucid and simple summary of his broad findings, including the first exposition of alternation of generations in the Hofmeisterian sense.

In 1851 Hofmeister’s most famous work, Vergleichende Untersuchungen, appeared. Without a word of introduction it begins: “The mature plant of Anthoceros appears...” The details of its structure and life history are described and copiously illustrated, entirely on the basis of original observations, followed by a brief critique of earlier work on the genus. A similar description of the next plant’s life history is followed by others, in order of increasing complexity. The amount of new information is immense; the errors are minor and do not affect the overall picture. In a concluding three-page “Review” the concept of alternation of generations is explained, and the main modifications of the life history in the different groups are briefly touched upon. Clearly, a page-by-page reading is presupposed, not from the author’s arrogance but from his failure to comprehend that others might be less deeply involved. The illustrations are largely from microscopic preparations; prerequisite knowledge of the gross features of the plants would enable the reader to correlate the details.

With this single publication, the core of botany passed from its Middle Ages to the modern period. The book was obviously so important that the two main German botanical journals carried very laudatory reviews by their editors.16 Although sensing that a revolution had come, they seemed overpowered and possibly did not quite understand exactly what had happened. Not so Henfrey. He promptly wrote the sorely needed commentary, brought in the flowering plants directly, put together a plate to illustrate crucial homologies, provided the elementary textbook-type table of comparative life cycles, and brought it all from the level of the research worker down to that of the student. This work was forthwith translated into German.17 As issued, Vergleichende Untersuchungen tended to collapse with heavy reference or textbook use. This explains its rarity.18

Two proposals, in 1852 and 1853, to prepare an English translation were unrealized. During the next decade Hofmeister published a series of supplementary papers, all of which were incorporated into a second edition,19 which exists only in English, translated by F. Currey, secretary of the Linnean Society, and published in 1862.

Despite Henfrey’s valiant efforts, English botany had remained largely unaware of the Hofmeisterian revolution. Obviously, the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species made a belated English translation imperative. Hofmeister’s pre-Darwinian work constitutes the greatest broad evolutionary treatise in botany because it is organized on a basis of increasing complexity. The plants described do not constitute an evolutionary series any more—or less—than does the zoological sequence of amphioxus, shark, frog, lizard, pigeon, and rabbit. The interpretation of Hofmeister’s work as phylogenetic has been vigorously attacked.20 Did Hofmeister in fact see any evolutionary implications? He made some interesting pre-Darwinian statements in 1852.21 He saw the major groups as sharply separated by unique characters. But within these groups, attempts to arrive at an ordered arrangement frequently led to an artificial separation of forms “which—to use the common phrase—are closely related. The more one’s understanding progresses here, the more the truth of the old saying natura non facit saltus becomes apparent.” Much later he was to write on selection.22 There, relationship, “a term used by scientists of all periods,” is stated to have meaning only if taken as true consanguinity. In the same paragraph the land plant groups are discussed in evolutionary terms.

In 1863 the Baden government requested faculty opinion on Hofmeister as a candidate for the vacant chair of botany at Heidelberg: “He is represented to us as one of the leading botanists in Germany, a man with the talent of a genius, highest diligence, and excellent powers of exposition, who now for the first time appears inclined to accept an academic teaching post, but for whom the offer of an appointment in Hamburg seems assured.”23 Without waiting for a response, the minister of education three weeks later made the extraordinary—and risky—appointment of this man, whose sole university connection was an honorary degree. The Hofmeisters moved to Heidelberg at the end of July 1863. Hofmeister held the professorship there until 1872, when he accepted the chair of botany at the University of Tübingen, as Hugo von Mohl’s successor. Hofmeister’s lectures were appreciated by more advanced students but went hopelessly over the heads of beginners. In the laboratory he was a superb teacher. Karl Goebel became his best-known student.

Hofmeister’s ambitious project of a handbook of physiological (in the sense of nonsystematic) botany, of which he was the editor, dates from the early Heidelberg period. It remained incomplete, lacking a new version of the material of Vergleichende Untersuchungen. He did, however, complete two treatises, the first of which, Die Lehre von der Pflanzenzelle (1867), was original in stressing the functional aspects of cytology. It aimed at explaining phenomena such as the colloidal properties of the protoplasm and imbibition properties of the cell wall in terms of physical science. The cellular organization of the plant body is recognized as yielding “the greatest possible strength with the least possible mass.” The second treatise, Allgemeine Morphologie der Gewächse (1868), represented a total break with the past. Not one of the 192 illustrations depicts an entire plant, or even a single mature plant organ. The stress is on organizations of growing points and matters affecting the relative positions of organs. It was, in fact, the first textbook of plant morphogenesis. Hofmeister’s research papers from 1859 were also mainly morphogenetic. His interest in plant movements led him to tropisms, growth movements controlled by the environment (discussed also in both of the above treatises). He decided—misled by a multiplication error to an excessive value of cell wall and tissue tension—that the response of roots tp gravity was passive, a theory amply disproved before he ever became involved.

Hofmeister would have done well to withdraw from the botanical scene after having reached its pinnacle with Vergleichende Untersuchungen. Although monumental and full of major contributions, his subsequent work contains major errors. The phenomenal earlier successes may have led him to consider himself infallible: admitting an error apparently became impossible for him and he vilified his critics.24 Adverse criticism, which affected his health, overwork from the dual roles of professor and commercial publisher, and the deaths in his family led to his collapse. The first of several strokes came on his fifty-second birthday, in 1876, and he had to resign his post. He died less than a year after his second marriage.


1. See his announcements and advertisements in Flora,10 (1825) and later.

2. Flora,17 (1834), 233.

3. Verhandlungen der Gesellschaft deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte, 15 (1838), 10.

4. His own words, from the published announcement; see Tradition und Gegenwart.

5. E. Pfitzer, “Wilhelm Hofmeister,” p. 274.

6. See his daughter Constanze, in Karl von Goebel, Wilhelm Hofmeister, p. 166.

7. Botonische Zeitung, 17 (1859), 374. Hofmeister had visited Brown at the British Museum in 1857. His letter home—see Goebel, op. cit., p. 159—tells much about both persons: “This active eighty-four-year-old ‘Price of Botanists’ received me with high esteem, gave a breakfast in my honor, and dug out a good part of his curios.” The occasion for the trip was a lawsuit filed by Hofmeister against the English agents of the publishing house. Hofmeister lost.

8. Hofmeister’s own approach to flowering-plant systematics may reflect this influence. See Goebel, op, cit., pp. 40 ff.

9. “... on the refutation or proof of which progress or arrest in this branch of science are first of all dependent...,” “Ueber die Fruchtbildung und Keimung der höheren Cryptogamen” (1849), col. 793.

10. Botanische Zeitung, 9 (1851), col. 224. In 1867 he received an honorary M.D. from Halle. This caused him great pride, because at the same time his hero Bismarck and the field marshals Helmuth Moltke and Albrecht Roon also received honorary degrees.

11. The potential runner-up was clearly William Griffith, who covered much the same botanical material, if rather more hastily and less accurately. He died, from the effects of having crisscrossed the Indian subcontinent on foot, before he had time to arrange his notes.

12. See his earlier footnote, in Die Entstehung des Embryo der phanerogamen (1849), p. 58.

13. See Vergleichende Untersuchungen, p. 111; and “Zur Uebersicht der Geschichte von der Lehre der Pflanzenbefruchtung” (1856).

14. Botanical Gazette (London), 2 (1850), 70–76.

15. On the reproduction and supposed existence of sexual organs in higher cryptpgamous plants, in Reports of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 21 (1852), 102–123.

16. A. E. Fürnrohr, in Flora, 34 (1851), 765–770; D. F. L. von Schlechtendal, in Botanaische Zeitung, 9 (1851), cols. 808–810.

17. Annual Magazine of Natural History, 2nd ser., 9 (1852), 441–461, pl. 17; Tagsberichte über die Fortschritte der Natur- und Heilkunde, Botanische Abt., no. 622 (1852), 289–296, pl. 8; no. 626 (1852), 297–304; no. 629 (1852), 205–309.

18. of the approximately 100 extant copies, only five have been traded during the last twenty years.

19. The final changes made at this time, which were gathered for German readers in Jahrbuch füur wissenschaftliche Botanik, 3 (1863), 259–293, indicate that he was past his prime.

20. Goebel, op.cit pp.58–59; and W. Zimmermann, in Repertorium novarum specierum regni vegetabilis, 58 (1955), 286–287.

21. Flora, 35 (1852), 10.

22. Allgemeine Morphologie der Gewächse (1868), pp. 564–579, see particularly p. 569.

23. Pfitzer, op. cit., p. 272; Goebel, op. cit., p. 160.

24. Goebel, op. cit., p. 118. see also ibid., p. 62; and Berichte der Deutschen botanischen Gesellschaft, 30 (1912), 65, for Hofmeister’s scandalous treatment of Strasburger, probably his only intellectual superior on the scene.


I. Original Works. Lists of Hofmeister’s papers may be found in the footnotes of the Goebel and Pfitzer biographies (see below) and in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers. Note, however, that the first paper listed in the Catalogue is by a W. Hoffmeister. Among his writings are “Untersuchungen des Vorgangs bei der Be fruchtung der Oenothereen,” in Botanische Zeitung, 5 (1847), cols. 785–792, pl. 8; “Ueber die Entstehund des Pollens,” ibid., 6 (1848), cols. 425–434, pl. 4; cols. 649–658, 670–674, pl. 6; Die Entstehung des Embryo der Phanerogamen. Eine Reihe mikroskopischer Untersuchungen (Leipzig, 1849); “Ueber die Fruchtbildung and Keimung der höheren Cryptogamen,” in Botanische Zeitung,7 (1849), cols. 793–800; review of a book by Mercklin, in Flora,33 (1850), 696–701; Vergleichende Untersuchungen der Keimung, Entfaltung and Fruchtbildung höherer Kryptogamen (Moose, Farrn, Equisetaceen, Rhizocarpeen and Lycopodiaceen) und der Samenbildung der Coniferen (Leipzig, 1851); “Zur Uebersicht der Geschichte von der Lehre der Pflanzenbefruchtung,” in Gelehrtre Anzeigen der K. Baverischen Akademie der Wissenschaften,43, bulletin no. 7 (1856), cols. 51–56; bulletin no. 8 (1856), cols. 57–62; repr. in Flora, 40 (1857), 119–128, Hofmeister’s own historical account of his prior discoveries; On the Germination, Development, and Fructifications of the Higher Cryptogamia, and on the Fructification of the Coniferae, F. Currey, trans. (London, 1862), translated from the MS of the unpublished 2nd ed. of Vergleichende Untersuchungen; Die Lehre von der Pflanzenzelle (Leipzig, 1867); and Allgemeine Morphologie der Gewächse (Leipzig, 1868).

II. Secondary Literature. See K. von Goebel, Wilhelm Hofmeister. Arbeit and Leben eines Botanikers des 19. Jahrhunderts..., vol. VIII in the series Grosse Männer. Studien zur Biologie des Genies (Leipzig, 1924), translated into English by H. M. Bower and edited by F. O. Bower (London, 1926); E. Pfitzer, “Wilhelm Hofmeister,” in Heidelberger Professoren aus dem neunzehnten Jahrhundert..., II (Heidelberg, 1903), 265–358; Tradition and Gegenwart. Festschrift zum 150 jährigen Bestehen des Musikverlages Friedrich Hofmeister (Leipzig, 1957)—this and Virneisel differ from the other works in certain statements of fact but are obviously more accurate; and W. Virneisel, “Hofmeister, Friedrich,” in F. Blume, ed., Die Musik in Geschichte und. Gegenwart, VI (Kassel, 1957), 574–578.

Johannes Proskauer

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