Knuth, Paul Erich Otto Wilhelm

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Knuth, Paul Erich Otto Wilhelm

(b. Greifswald, Germany, 20 November 1854; d. Kiel, Germany, 30 October 1900)


Knuth was the son of a municipal official (Privat Sekretär), and the former Sophie Bremer.1 The family was Lutheran. Until August 1873 he attended the Realschule and then the University of Greifswald, where he was awarded the doctorate on 30 December 1876. On 1 October of teh same year, he accepted the position of provisional teacher at the Realschule in Iserlohn; he became a full member of the staff one year later, after obtaining his teaching certificate, with high honors, on 28 July 1877. After five years at Iserlohn, Knuth moved to Kiel as teacher at the Oberrealschule, beginning his duties on 1 October 1881. He remained associated with this school until his death in 1900. In 1891 he was promoted to senior teacher (Oberlehrer); on 15 December 1895 he was given the title of professor; and on 8 December 1898 he became a councillor of the fourth degree.

From 1891 Knuth was in ill health and often had to interrupt his teaching fro long periods. In August 1898 he asked for permission to study at the botanical garden in Buitenzorg, Java; he stayed there from November 1898 until March 1899. On 20 March 1899 he wrote to the authorities in Kiel, seeking an extension of his leave of absence; when their refusal reached Buitenzorg in May, Knuth had already left, probably because of ill health. He returned to Kiel via Japan, California, and New York, arriving in July 1899. He died in Kiel about a year later.

Although Knuth apparently was educated as a chemist, his scientific work was in botany. This interest was probably awakened by the flora in the vicinity of Kiel and the North Sea islands. Soon he began writing books and papers on the flora of Schleswig-Holstein and the North Sea islands. He also wrote on the history of botany in Schleswig-Holstein. All this would have earned Knuth the reputation of a good regional botanist; it is his work on the fertilization of flowers that brought him fame. This field had been opened up by C. Sprengel, whose Das entdeckte Geheimnis der Natur (1783) Knuth prepared for a new edition in Ostwald’s Klassiker der Exakten Wissenschaften. The topic became of special interest after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and Darwin’s studies on forms and fertilization of flowers2.

While doing work in systematics Knuth started collecting data on the identity of the insects that visit various flowers, and later he set up a network of observers to enlarge the area covered. This type of research had been started in Germany by the brothers Fritz and Hermann Müller; the latter had written a book on the subject in 18733. The numerous observations collected by Knuth made Müller’s book obsolete, so Knuth decided to publish his Handbuch der Blütenbiologie, which was planned on such an elaborate scale that it still remains the definitive handbook on the subject. Death prevented Knuth from completing more than two volumes of this work; it was continued by Otto Appel and Ernst Loew, who wrote the three subsequent volumes.

The journey to Buitenzorg had been undertaken to collect material on the fertilization of exotic plants that was to be used in later volumes. At Buitenzorg, Knuth studied the pollination history of more than 200 plants and worked on a great variety of related problems4. His untimely death prevented him from working out and publishing the results of these studies.


1. I am indebted to Miss H. Sievert of the city archives of Kiel for information on Knuth.

2. On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing (London, 1862); The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (London, 1876); The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (London, 1877).

3. H. Müller, Die Befruchtung der Blumen durch Insekten (Leipzig, 1873); English trans. by d’Arcy W. Thompson, The Fertilisation of Flowers (London, 1883).

4. P. Honig and F. Verdoorn, Science and Scientists in the Netherlands Indies (New York, 1945), see p. 66.


I. Original Works. A list of Knuth’s writings is found in Otto Appel’s obituary and in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, XVI, 349–350. Both should be consulted. His writings include Ueber eine neue Tribrombenzolsulfosaüre und einige ihrer Derivate (Greifswald, 1876), his dissertation, also in Justus Liebig’s Annalen der Chemie186 (1877), 290–306; Lehrbuch der Chemie für Maschinisten und Torpeder (Kiel; 1884); Flora der Provinz Schlewig-Holstein, des Fürstenthums Lübeck, sowie des Gebietes der freie Städte Hamburg und Lübeck (Leipzig, 1887); Einige Bemerkungen, meine Flora von Schleswig- Holstein betreffend (Leipzig, 1888); Schulflora der Provinz Schleswig-Holstein (Leipzig, 1888); Botanische Wanderungen auf der Insel Sylt-Tondern und Westernland (n.p., 1890); Geschichte der Botanik in Schleswig-Holstein 2 vols. (Kiel; 1890–1892); Ueber blütenbiologische Beobachtungen (Kiel—Leipzig, 1893); Blumen und Insekten auf den nordfriesischen Inseln (Kiel—Leipzig, 1894); Christian Konrad Sprengel, Das entdeckte Geheimnis der Natur…, edited by Knuth for Ostwald’s Klassiker der Exakten Wissenschaften, nos. 48–51 (Leipzig, 1894); Grundriss der Blütenbiologie (Kiel– Leipzig, 1894); Flora der nordfriesischen Inseln (Kiel—Leipzig, 1895); Flora der Insel Helgoland (Kiel, 1896); and Handbuch der Blütenbiologie unter Zugrundelegung von Hermann Müller’ Werk “Die Befruchtung der Blumen durch Insekten 2 vols. in 3 pts. (Leipzig, 1898–1899); English trans. by J. R. Ainsworth Davis, Handbook of Flower Pollination, Based on Hermann Müller’s Work “The Fertilisation of Flowers by Insects” (Oxford, 1906–1909).

Knuth wrote many papers, most of which are found in Botanisches Centralblatt; Botanisch Jaarboek, uitgegeven door het kruidkundig genootschap Dodonaea te Gent; Die Heimath, Monatschrift des Vereines zur Pflege der Naturund Landeskunde in Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg und Lübeck; Humboldt; Kieler Zsitung; and Deutsche botanisch Monatsschrift.

II. Seconday Literature. On Knuth or his work, see the anonymous “Biographische Mittheilungen (Paul Knuth),” in Leopoldina, 35 (1899), 180; Otto Appel, “Paul Knuth;,” in Berichte der Deutschen botanischen Gesellschaft,18 (1900), 162–170; I. H. B. “Paul Knuth,” in Nature, 61 (1899–1900), 205; L. Istvan, “Nerkolog Paul Knuth,” in Természettudományi Közlöny,32 (1900), 693–694; F. Ludwig “Nekrologt. Das Leben und Wirken Prof. Dr. Paul Knuths,” in Illustrierte Zeitschrift für Entomologie, 4 (1899), 365–367; and E. Wunschmann, “Paul Knuth,” in Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, LI (1906), 274–275.

Peter W. vander Pas