Kuntze, Carl Ernst Otto

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(b. Leipzig, Germany, 23 June 1843; d. San Remo, Italy, 28 January 1907)


Otto Kuntzz, essentially a self-taught scientist, received a rather limited primary and secondary education at a Realschule and a commercial school in Leipzig. His interest in botany was stimulated by Carl Otto Bulnheim at Leipzig and, after he had accepted an administrative post in Berlin at the age of twenty, by Alexander Braun and Paul Ascherson. His first publications, both published in 1867, were a pocket flora of Leipzig and a revision of the German brambles (Rubus).

After he established a factory for the manufacture of volatile oils and essences at Leipzig in 1868, Kuntze’s financial situation improved so spectacularly that he could retire from business in 1873 and devote himself to travel and botany without further need to earn a living. He first went on a journey around the world from February 1874 until February 1876, traveling to the West Indies, northern South America and Central America, then via the United States (from New York to San Francisco) to Japan, China, southeast Asia, and India back to Europe through Aden and Egypt. The first published result of this trip was his original and stimulating Reise um die Erde (1881), in which Kuntze shows himself to be a highly critical and nonconformist observer. He made large ethnological and botanical collections, the former for the Museum für Völkerkunde at Leipzig and the latter constituting the nucleus of his sizable private herbarium, on the basis of which he elaborated his nomenclatural reforms in later years.

After the journey Kuntze chose botany as the main subject for somewhat belated university training at Leipzig and Berlin (1876-1878). He received a doctorate from the University of Freiburg im Breisgau for a thesis on Cinchona in June 1878. From then on, his time was spent in botanical studies at Leipzig, Berlin, Leiden, andKew interspersed with trips to Asiatic Russia and the Canary Islands. After his dissertation Kuntze elaborated his more general ideas on systematic botany in a second monograph on Rubus, treating mainly non-German material, by presenting theoretical considerations on the methodology of the recognition and description of species. The travelogue of 1881 was followed by Phytogeogenesis (1884), which offered a view of the origin of plant life. The main task ahead of Kuntze, however, was the publication of the botanical results of his journey around the world, which he presented in the first two volumes of his Revisio generum plantarum (1891).

While Kuntze was working on the naming of his plants, his highly legalistic mind had been troubled by many obvious defects in the current rules of botanical nomenclature, which had been set up by Alphonse de Candolle and were approved and accepted by the International Botanical Congress scientists had silently interpreted several of the unsettled points or ambiguities of the rules in accordance with informal mutual understandings. Kuntze challenged most of these unwritten rules by means of a literal but sometimes very one-sided interpretation of the existing regulations. For instance, with respect to priority they provided that botanical nomenclature started with Linnaeus’ writings–without specifying the starting-point publication. Kuntze accepted as such a starting point the Systema naturaeof 1735 and the Genera plantarumof 1737, written when Linnaeus’ proposed reform could not yet have been accepted by his contemporaries. Most botanists, however, had ignored all publications, including Linnaeus’ own, issued before the Species plantarumof 1753.

Kuntze’s choice thus resulted in the reinstatement of many neglected non-Linnaean generic names. As a further result of his nonconformist, often (admittedly) Perfectly logical interpretation of the Paris rules of 1867, Kuntze found it necessary to change the names of some 25,000-30,000 names of species, often of very well-known plants. General acceptance of Kuntze’s rules as set out in his Revisio thus became impossible. The reaction of the botanical establishment to Kuntze’s reforms was sharp and often vehement. Kuntze went on another major trip, this time to South America, from November 1891 until January 1893 and made again extensive plant collections.

The reactions against his proposed reforms, together with the new collections, formed the basis for the third volume of the Revisio, which appeared in three parts (1893, 1898) and added to the number of name changes. A chaotic state of botanical nomenclature resulted, partly because botanists were not entirely unanimous in their refutation of Kuntze’s rules. These rules contained several elements–such as a true and strict adherence to priority as soon as the starting point had been agreed on-which made sense and appealed, for instance, to a large group of American botanists. The main issues were resolved by the Second International Congress of Botany held at Vienna in 1905, against the spirited opposition of Kuntze. The extent of the disturbance is illustrated by the fact that the last issues created by Kuntze were settled only at the Fifth International Congrè;ss of Botany held at Cambridge in 1930. Kuntze published numerous pamphlets in which he did not always refrain from acrimony and personal attacks. Even so, although very few of his changes were adopted, he had forced botanists to put their house in order with respect to botanical nomenclature.

The controversy created by Kuntze cast a shadow over his later years, and the positive points in the contributions to botany by this colorful although slightly quixotic scientist tended to be overlooked by his contemporaries. Kuntze knew his plants very well and was a scholarly and many-sided historian of botany in addition to being a legalistic reformer of nomenclature. In 1903 he published Lexicon generum phanerogamarum with T. E. van Post. He continued to travel and amass a large herbarium, which, except for the European material, is now incorporated in that of the New York botanical garden; the European material is at the Charleston (South Carolina) Museum. Kuntze did not attend the Vienna Congress of 1905, at which the results of so many of his labors were rejected, except for a brief but spectacular and dignified appearance at one of the nomenclature sessions, at which he denounced the right of the Congress to legislate on these matters. Shortly thereafter his health deteriorated, and he died at his Italian home in San Remo.


I. Original Works. No complete published list of Kuntze’s many writings exists, but he himself provided lists up to 1898 in his Revisio: I, clvi, and II , pt. 2, 202. Besides his books he published many journal articles and pamphlets, mainly on nomenclature. His main works were Reform deutscher Brombeeren (Leipzig, 1867); Taschenflora von Leipzig (Leipzig-Heidelberg, 1867); Cinchona. Arten, Hybriden und Cultur tier Chininbaäume (Leipzig, 1878); Methodik der Speciesbe-schreibung und Rubus (Leipzig. 1879); Reise urn die Erde (Leipzig, 1881; 2nd ed., 1888): Phytogeogenesis (Leipzig, 1884); “Monographic der Gattung Clematis,” in Verhandlungen des Bot anise hen Vereins der Provinz Brandenburg, 26 (1885), 83-202; Revisio generum plantarum vascularium omnium atque cellularium multarum secundum leges nomenclaturae internationales, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 1891-1898); Geogenetische Beiträge (Leipzig, 1895); Nomenclaturae botanicae codex brevis maturis (Stuttgart, 1903); and Lexicon generum planerogamarum inde ab anno 1737… (Stuttgart 1903; reiss. 1904), written with T. E. van Post.

Most of the nomenclatural writings are contained or summarized in the Revisio and the Lexicon. Polemical pamphlets included Exposé sur les Congrè;s pour la nomenclature botartique (Geneva, 1900); Protest gegen den vollmachtswidrig arrangierten und wegen die vielen unregelmässigkeiten inkompetenten Nomenclatur-Kon-gress (San Remo, 1905); and Motivierte Ahtehnung der angeblich vom Wiener Kongrcss 1905 angenommenen inkompetenten und fehlerreichen botanischen Nomen-clatunegeln (San Remo, 1907). Kuntze also published on geological, ethnographical, statistical, and legal subjects: lor instance, Motivirter Entwurf eines deutschen Gesundheits-Baugesetzes (Leipzig, 1882).

II. Secondary Literature. There is no formal biography of Kuntze. Most of the literature deals with his nomenelatural reforms rather than with the man behind the polemics. I. Urban, Symholae antillanae. III (Berlin, 1902), 70-71. and Flora brasiliensis, I pt. I (1906), 36-38, gives the most personal information based upon private communication; J. H. Barnhart, Bulletin of the Charleston Muséum, 9 , no. 8 (1913). 65-68. also provides some original details. The few formal obituaries, such as that by W. B. Hemsley, in Bulletin of Miscellaneous information. Royal Botanic Hardens. Kew (1907), 100- l01, are uninformative.

Frans A. Stafleu