Goebel, Karl

views updated

Goebel, Karl

(b. Billigheim, Baden, Germany, 8 March 1855; d. Munich, Germany, 9 October 1932)


Although his full style was Karl Immanuel Eberhard Ritter von Goebel, he called himself simply Karl Goebel throughout his life. He was one of that group of independent German investigators who, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, revitalized botany and made it a wide-ranging experimental science. Goebel brought this activity well into the twentieth century; indeed, the Organographie der Pflanzen, his major work, was not fully published in its final form until 1933 (the year following his death).

Intended by his family for the church, Goebel was educated at the Evangelical College of Blaubeuren and thence, at the age of eighteen, went to study theology and philosophy at Tübingen. There he came under the influence of Wilhelm Hofmeister and realized his true inclination toward science. After some mental conflict—since he did not wish to disappoint his mother—he persuaded her of his interest and devoted himself to botany. At this time he also began his extensive botanical travels. Hofmeister fell ill before Goebel completed his training, and in 1876 he transferred to Strasbourg to study with Heinrich Anton de Bary. Here he took his doctorate.

Goebel then worked for a short time at the biological station at Naples. The following year Julius von Sachs appointed him his assistant at Würzburg, and he qualified as Privatdozent. He thus had the advantage of contact with three of the outstanding botanical figures of his time—he received inspiration from Hofmeister in the widest aspects of the newly arising morphology; from de Bary in plant anatomy and mycology; and from Sachs in physiology.

After four years as Sachs’s assistant Goebel was appointed professor at Rostock and in 1887 at Marburg. In 1891 he moved to Munich, where he was professor of botany and later general director of the State Scientific Collections, retiring emeritus in 1931.

Goebel’s principal administrative achievement in Munich was the removal of the botanical laboratories and gardens from their cramped quarters near the main railway station in the center of town to the edge of the Bavarian royal park at Nymphenburg. The gardens and greenhouses were his particular concern; through the years he enriched them with specimens collected on his many journeys (which took him to the Rockies, the Andes, the New Zealand Alps, and the Indian Ghats, among other places). Under his supervision the installation became second in Germany only to that in Berlin. An acute contemporary noted that Goebel had planned the greenhouses and gardens with such thought and consideration that, although their unity bore his unmistakable imprint, his assistants had not thought their ideas disregarded. Goebel also contributed several new editions of the guide to the collections. He wished to provide students and researchers in the institute itself with spacious, practical working and teaching laboratories, and there are indications that its vast, ornate entrance hall, with its marble and polychrome mosaics, was not of his planning or even desiring.

As a botanist, Goebel drew upon that great wealth of data accumulated in the late nineteenth century through use of the compound light microscope. One of the great problems of the time was to decide how this great assembly of facts could best be codified and studied, and it was Goebel’s contribution to see and industriously apply a profitable method to the existing corpus of information and to his own collections. That he early established a reputation as a botanist of wide knowledge and great objectivity is testified to by Sachs’s decision to ask Goebel to assist him in the preparation of a new edition of his textbook, entrusting him with the sections on systematics and special morphology.

Goebel preferred objective research to speculation. For him this meant observation and simple experimentation on the great variety of living plants. To a friend he expressed regret that he did not have the knowledge of the exact sciences necessary to carry his experimental studies to the biochemical level. He was, however, impatient of gadgetry and the niceties of preparation and rarely used a microtome for his sections.

An unfortunate by-product of Darwinism among botanists had been an excessive preoccupation with phylogenetic speculation. This Goebel despised. He once said, for example, that concern about the “natural system” of seed plants seemed about as hopeless as attempting to return to its original paper bags the confetti scattered during the Munich carnival. His attitude was best expressed in his introduction to the Organographie: “I take exactly the same view as Herbert Spencer.... He says ‘Everywhere structures in great measure determine functions; and everywhere functions are incessantly modifying structures. In nature the two are inseparable co-operators; and science can give no true interpretation of nature without keeping their co-operation constantly in view.’”

The parts of plants might therefore be modified during their individual life by the effects of the surroundings upon their functions, as when a spiny plant, grown in a moist atmosphere under a bell jar, became leafy. Such changes were open to experimental measurement and proof. Nevertheless, Goebel clearly realized that organ primordia are inherited with properties that “belong to the capacity of the plant itself.” The dependence of metamorphosis on both racial and individual characteristics and experiences would remain true, he taught, even if a general theory of descent were abandoned. Plants consist of operating and adjustable organs, and their study is an organography.

By the middle of the nineteenth century plant studies, which up until then had been mainly observational, had begun to harden into a rigid formalism. The significance of Goebel’s organography for botanical science lay in the fact that it provided one of the main bridges from the achievements of observation to the fully fledged experimental science of the twentieth century. Earlier attempts had been premature; organography itself was transitional because methods were not yet in existence to enable it to be carried to its logical conclusion. Goebel, however, lived long enough to see the first developments of experimental plant physiology and biochemistry, although not perhaps their coordination with the subtler levels of structure, to which his organography had pointed.

Goebel’s success as a teacher resulted from his clarity and impartiality, but he is said to have underrated his didactic powers—although adding, “If an angel from heaven came down to give the botany lectures, the medics would still not turn up.” Yet the records show that many completed the full fifty hours prescribed. He gave freely of his time to his pupils and received many advanced students from abroad.

His aloofness in the lecture hall and laboratory appears to have been a pedagogic device which Goebel deemed useful. With his students in the field, or even during evening discussions, he was more relaxed; and those botanists who have left records of meeting him on his travels have all done so with affectionate admiration.

Beyond the vast knowledge of his special subject, Goebel had a cultivated and philosophic mind. He quoted freely from the Bible, although with age he became increasingly cool toward the church. His contemporaries regarded Goebel as the exponent of an extreme materialistic view of living things, yet he thought highly of Henri Bergson’s concept of élan vital, could speak of the Logos in nature, and held Hegelian viewpoints to which he had been introduced as a student at Tübingen. The objectivity of his ideas and their freedom from the rigidity and speculation that were simultaneously besetting the older schools made his influence on later work very considerable. He died as the result of a fall suffered while botanizing in his native Swäbische Alb.


I. Original Works. Goebel published more than 200 works, many of which appeared in Flora, which he edited until 1932. A full list of Goebel’s publications is in the obituary by Karsten (see below). His principal work, Organographie der Pflanzen, had several eds.: 1st ed., 2 vols. (Jena, 1898–1901), English trans. (Oxford, 1900–1905); 2nd ed., 3 vols. (Jena, 1915–1923); 3rd ed., 3 vols. (Jena, 1928–1933).

II. Secondary Literature. An obituary notice is G. Karsten, in Berichte der deutschen botanischen Gesellschaft, 50 (1932), 131–162. Otto Renner, “Erinnerungen an K. Goebel,” in Flora, 131 (1936), v–xi, is an excellent sketch of Goebel as man and scientist.

W. O. James

About this article

Goebel, Karl

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article