Burmeister, Hermann Karl Konrad

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(b. Stralsund, Prussia, 15 January 1807; d. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2 May 1892)

biology, entomology, paleontology.

Burmeister spent the first half of his life in Germany and then worked as the director of the Museum of Buenos Aires and the Academy of Sciences of Córdoba, Argentina, in the second half of the nineteenth century, with modern and rigorous criteria of organization. His biological fixism (the belief that species are fixed) distanced him from the youngest scientists, and he did not gain disciples. However, his abundant work dramatically expanded knowledge of South American zoological systematics and paleontology.

Formation and First Steps. Hermann Burmeister was the son of Christian Hermann Burmeister, a civil servant in the Swedish customs service, and Wilhelmine Christine Burmeister. His father intended him to become a businessman, but his teachers at the gymnasium (secondary school) encouraged his ambition to study medicine and his interest in collecting insects. He studied in the universities of Greifwald and Halle, where he graduated as a medical and philosophical doctor in 1829, with a dissertation on entomology. He was a professor at the universities of Berlin and Halle, and director of the zoological museum of the latter. He had two sons between 1836 and 1840 from his marriage to Maria Elisabeth Sommer, which ended in divorce. In 1843 he publishedHistory of the Creation, a very widely read work and precursor of the Kosmos of Alexander von Humboldt, his friend and mentor.

In1849–1850 Burmeister held a seat on his local city council as a member of the far left political party, but disappointed by the experience, he obtained a leave of absence from the university and a major subsidy from the Prussian state to travel around Brazil. He covered Brazil (1850–1852), Italy (1854–1855), and Uruguay and Argentina (1856–1859), obtaining abundant collections. He published scientific works, textbooks, and travel writings. When medical studies in Halle were reformed to omit zoology, he resigned from his professorship, separated from his first wife, and traveled to Buenos Aires, where he was designated director of the Public Museum in 1862. In 1865 he married Petrona Louise Tejeda in Argentina, where he had four sons, two of whom also became scientists.

In Argentina. When Burmeister returned to Buenos Aires in 1861, the direction of the Public Museum had just been rejected by the French naturalist Auguste Bravard, and Burmeister offered himself immediately for the position. He knew the museum, which was founded in 1812 but remained as a disorganized collection. He reorganized it in accordance with the German model characterized by the close relation between education and investigation. He divided the museum in three sections: artistic, historical and scientific, with natural history predominating. The museum bought and received donations of specimens and collections, among them the entomological collection of Burmeister and the fossil collection of Bravard. Its library also grew with the purchase of his personal library and exchange of the Anales, the journal he founded at the museum. The financing and the facilities of the museum were significantly extended. Burmeister did almost all the work, both of investigation and of public exhibition and publication, by himself. He published in the 1864–1874 and 1883–1892 periods eighteen installments of the Anales del Museo Público de Buenos Aires, later Anales del Museo Nacional de Buenos Aires, which allowed him to exchange with other similar publications of the world the spreading of his works and the defense of his theoretical positions. Also he gained the support of the Asociación de Amigos de la Historia Natural, then Sociedad Paleontológica de Buenos Aires (1866–1868), an ephemeral institution promoted by Burmeister to interest to the Buenosairean elite in the development of the museum and in the financing of the Anales. He sponsored policies of protection for the natural patrimony. Burmeister knew how to maintain his institutional independency from the University of Buenos Aires, even rejecting a university position, which caused him problems. Nevertheless, he was provided with the political and financial support from the Province of Buenos Aires for the publication of the Anales and of his personal works.

Between 1870 and 1872 Argentine president Domingo F. Sarmiento entrusted him with the organization of a Faculty of Mathematical and Physical Sciences in the University of Córdoba. By hiring several German naturalists, Burmeister constituted there an important scientific nucleus, but it failed as a center of scientific teaching, probably because of his authoritarian personality. This project was competing with the Department of Exact Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires, impelled by the rector Juan María Gutiérrez and supported with the hiring of Italian teachers. In 1873, finally, Burmeister was designated director of a National Academy of Sciences in Córdoba, but was opposed by the naturalists and contracted professors and resigned from his position in 1875.

His relation with organizations of promotion and education of the sciences—such as the Sociedad Científica Argentina founded in 1872 and in general with the activities of the Argentine young scientists, was problematic. Among them were Francisco P. Moreno, a teacher of zoology and creator of an own anthropological museum; Eduardo L. Holmberg, a student of medicine; and Florentino Ameghino, a notable paleontologist. The young naturalist Hendrix Weyenbergh, however, formed in Córdoba an Entomological Society, which became later the Zoological Society, which was fought by Burmeister for its open spirit and its adhesion to Darwinism. Holmberg in particular criticized the performance of Burmeister in the Museum of Buenos Aires, his ideological profile and his isolation from the local intellectual ambience. Ameghino, evolutionist and already known by his works in Europe, and Moreno, who began to adhere to Darwinism, also collided with his personality. Burmeister refrained from participation in academic affairs and formed no more disciples than his sons Carlos and Federico.

Between 1876 and 1886 Burmeister published, with the patronage of the Argentine State but in French, four volumes of a Physical Description of the Argentina that received an award in the Geographical Exhibition of Venice of 1891. In 1884, with the Argentine State definitively organized, the Public Museum became National Museum of Buenos Aires (at present Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales “Bernardino Rivadavia”). With other groups and rival institutions emerging, Burmeister concentrated on the enlargement of the museum and the defense of his scientific positions.

Work and Ideas. Burmeister’s travel writings contain meticulous descriptions of many diverse objects, natural and social, although his specialities were entomology and paleontology. His bibliography registers almost three hundred titles on entomology, paleontology, mammalogy, geology, climatology, general zoology, ornithology, herpetology, carcinology, general natural history and trips. The majority were published in German, in specialized German, English and French reviews.

His work ranges between the synthetic tradition of the erudite naturalists and the modern tendency toward specialization. Burmeister’s prestige was founded on international publication of original remarks and on recognition by the Argentine authorities. His performance as director of the Museum of Buenos Aires and his research positioned him as one of the main naturalists in South America.

The scientific ideas of Burmeister were based on idealism and the fixism of species. He conceived matter as eternal, not created, and considered living beings as materializations of ideal types, modifiable by abrupt changes or cataclysms. He admitted a paleontological progressive succession that would culminate in man, but he considered evolutionism a conjecture unacceptable from his strictly empiricist methodological standpoint. In entomology he was known especially for innovatively basing his classification scheme on variations in insect development.


A fairly complete bibliography may be found in Taschenberg, Otto, “Karl Hermann Konrad Burmeister,” Leopoldina 29 (1893): 43–46, 62–64, 78–82, 94–97.


Geschichte der Schöpfung[History of the creation]. I Eine Darstellung des Entwickelungsganges der Erde und ihrer Bewohner. Für die Gebildeten aller Stände. Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1843. (7th edition, 1867.) Translated to Dutch (Geschiedenis der schepping), French (Histoire de la Creation) and Spanish (Historia de la Creación).

“La paleontología actual en sus tendencias y resultados.” Anales del Museo Público de Buenos Aires1, no. 1 (1864): 12–31.

“Fauna argentina. Primera parte: mamíferos fósiles.

Introducción.” Anales del Museo Público de Buenos Aires 1, no. 2 (1867): 87–120.

“Fauna argentina. Segunda parte: Mammifera pinnata argentina.”Anales del Museo Público de Buenos Aires 1, no. 5 (1868): 301–311.

“Examen crítico de los Mamíferos y Reptiles fósiles denominados por D. Augusto Bravard y mencionados en su obra precedente.” Anales del Museo Nacional de Buenos Aires 3, no. 2 (14) (1885): 95–174.

“Adiciones al examen crítico de los Mamíferos fósiles tratados en el ‘Examen crítico de los Mamíferos y Reptiles fósiles denominados por D. Augusto Bravard’.” Anales del Museo Nacional de Buenos Aires 3, no. 5 (17) (1891): 375–400. “Continuación a las adiciones al examen crítico de los

Mamíferos fósiles terciarios.” Anales del Museo Nacional de Buenos Aires 3, no. 6 (1894): 401–461.


Asúa, Miguel de. “El apoyo oficial a la Description Physique de laRépublique Argentine de H. Burmeister.” Quipu 6, no. 3 (1989): 339–353.

Auza, Néstor T. “Germán Burmeister y la Sociedad Paleontológica, 1866–1868.” Investigaciones y Ensayos(Academia Nacional de la Historia, Buenos Aires) 46 (1996): 137–155.

Birabén, Max. Germán Burmeister: Su vida—su obra. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Culturales Argentinas, 1968.

Lascano González, Antonio. El Museo de Ciencias Naturales de Buenos Aires. Su historia. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Culturales Argentinas, 1980.

Lopes, Maria Margaret. “Nobles rivales: estudios comparados entre el Museo Nacional de Río de Janeiro y el Museo Público de Buenos Aires.” In La ciencia en la Argentina entre siglos. Textos, contextos e instituciones, edited by Marcelo Montserrat. Buenos Aires: Manantial, 2000.

Mantegari, Cristina. Germán Burmeister. La institucionalización científica en la Argentina del siglo XIX. Buenos Aires: Universidad Nacional de San Martín/Jorge Baudino, 2003.

Montserrat, Marcelo. “La mentalidad evolucionista: una ideología del progreso.” In La Argentina del Ochenta al Centenario, edited by Gustavo Ferrari and Ezequiel Gallo. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1980.

Navarro Floria, Pedro. “La mirada de la ‘vanguardia capitalista’ sobre la frontera pampeano-patagónica: Darwin (1833–1834), Mac Cann (1847), Burmeister (1857).” Saber y Tiempo(Buenos Aires) 10 (2000): 111–146.

———, Leonardo Salgado and Pablo Azar. “La invención de los ancestros: el ‘patagón antiguo’ y la construcción discursiva de un pasado nacional remoto para la Argentina (1870–1915).” Revista de Indias(Madrid) 64, no. 231 (2004): 405–424.

Salgado, Leonardo and Pedro Navarro Floria. “Germán

Burmeister y su Historia de la Creación.”Episteme (Porto Alegre) 13 (2001): 109–127. Available from http://www.ilea.ufrgs.br/episteme/portal/pdf/numero13/episteme13_artigo_salgado_floria.pdf.

Sheets-Pyenson, Susan. Cathedrals of Science: The Development of Colonial Natural History Museums during the Late Nineteenth Century. Kingston, Ontario and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988.

Taschenberg, Otto. “Karl Hermann Konrad Burmeister.” Leopoldina 29 (1893): 43–46, 62–64, 78–82, 94–97.

Vera de Flachs, María Cristina. La escuela científica alemana en la Universidad Nacional de Córdoba. Córdoba: Junta Provincial de Historia, 1995.

Pedro Navarro Floria

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