Mueller, Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von

views updated


(b. Rostock, Germany, 30 June 1825; d. Melbourne, Australia, 10 October 1896)

botany, geography.

Born and educated in Germany, Ferdinand Jakob Mueller became Australia’s most distinguished scientist and the leading authority on the Australian flora, with more than one thousand publications, including numerous books, to his credit. His work, primarily in descriptive and economic botany, remains fundamental to Australian plant science. A noted explorer of areas of Australia previously unvisited by Europeans, he became a major promoter of expeditions into unexplored regions of inland Australia, New Guinea, and Antarctica. He played a central role in the formation of important Australian scientific institutions. A leading figure in the acclimatization movement, he was among the first to recognize the damage being done to the Australian environment by European settlers and to call for more sustainable land management.

Early Career: Germany and Australia Mueller was apprenticed to a pharmacist in Husum, Schleswig-Holstein, in 1840. Required to assemble an herbarium, he developed a passion for botany, spending every spare moment botanizing and establishing links with other enthusiasts. To complete his pharmacy qualifications, he enrolled at Kiel University in 1845, attending lectures in chemistry, geology, and some medical subjects, as well as in botany. He passed the Staatsexamen in pharmacy in March 1847. Inspired by reading Alexander von Humboldt’s travels, and by mingling with the elite of German science at the 1846 congress of German scientists and medical doctors (Versammlung Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte), held in Kiel, Mueller dreamed of becoming a scientific traveler. Both his father Friedrich Müller, a customs officer at Rostock, and his mother Louise Müller, née Mertens, from Tönning in Schleswig-Holstein, had died from tuberculosis while he was a child. When the same disease carried off his older sister in 1845—five other siblings had died in infancy—he became fearful for his health and that of his two surviving sisters, and decided to seek a drier climate. Australia, botanically rich but still little known scientifically, was an attractive destination for a would-be Humboldtian naturalist. Shortly before he and his sisters sailed in July 1847, he submitted his doctoral thesis at Kiel University; it was a survey of the flora of southern Schleswig, effectively a catalog of his impressive herbarium assembled during the previous seven years.

At first, Mueller settled in South Australia, finding work in an Adelaide pharmacy and botanizing at every opportunity. Naturalized as a British subject in 1849, he anglicized his name from Müller. He ranged as far afield as Mount Gambier, in the southeast, and northward to the Flinders Ranges and the desert country near Lake Torrens, and sent a large collection of plants to the Hamburg botanist Otto WilhelmSonder, who functioned for many years as, in effect, his European agent. He also sent descriptions of many items he thought represented new species. He recognized, however, that without an adequate botanical library or access to authenticated specimens, his identifications must be tentative, and he relied on Sonder to check his analyses before publishing them. Two papers in Linnaea resulted, one with Sonder as coauthor. Sonder also arranged for sections of Mueller’s collection to be described by experts on particular families, resulting in a series in Linnaea under the heading “Plantae Muellerianae” that made Mueller’s name known among European botanists.

Government Botanist In August 1852, Mueller moved to Melbourne, intending to set up a pharmacy. However, Victoria’s scientifically inclined governor, Charles Joseph La Trobe, impressed by Mueller’s botanical knowledge, created the new position of government botanist and appointed Mueller to it on 26 January 1853. He occupied this position until his death.

Mueller immediately embarked on a series of arduous journeys that took him into almost every corner of Victoria, much of it rugged terrain previously unvisited by Europeans, to survey the flora of a colony settled less than twenty years earlier. Mueller aimed to identify potentially valuable indigenous plants, and he played an important role in promoting the industrial usefulness of eucalypts in particular. From his journeys he formed a substantial herbarium that provided the basis for magisterial accounts of Victoria’s flora.

From mid-1855, Mueller took leave to serve as botanist on the North Australian Exploring Expedition led by Augustus Charles Gregory. In the course of eighteen months, Mueller traveled more than 3,000 kilometers (1,850 miles) on horseback in northern Australia with Gregory, and assembled an enormous collection of plants, many new to science. Under his contract, his primary collection went to Kew Gardens in England, but Mueller was allowed to keep a duplicate collection. Not content, as most previous colonial collectors had been, for metropolitan botanists to describe his material, he sent his own descriptions to London with the specimens. Some were published in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, but the volume of material he sent overwhelmed Kew’s resources, and most of his descriptions were returned to him. Increasingly confident of his mastery of the Australian flora, Mueller thereupon launched his own publication, Fragmenta Phytographiae Australiae, which became his principal vehicle for publishing descriptions of new species; ninety-four issues appeared between 1858 and 1882.

Throughout this period and beyond, Mueller continued botanical fieldwork in Victoria, and he also visited Western Australia, Tasmania, and southern New South Wales. Now, however, he rarely ventured beyond the frontiers of European settlement, instead encouraging explorers to collect on his behalf specimens that he then described. He also encouraged settlers to collect for him. Sometimes he acquired whole collections, including his friend Sonder’s enormous herbarium, containing at least a quarter of a million specimens and extremely rich in type specimens—including many from Australia—which he purchased from Sonder’s widow in 1883. By collection and purchase, the Melbourne herbarium expanded very rapidly under his direction to become one of the world’s great herbaria, and the paramount collection of Australian forms.

Collaboration with Bentham From the moment Mueller decided, while still in South Australia, not to return to Germany, he dreamed of writing a definitive Australian Flora. He was the obvious person to do the Australian volumes for a series of British colonial floras proposed by Kew in the late 1850s. The English botanists insisted, however, that he would need to study the specimens at Kew and in other European collections from which many Australian species had been named. Mueller had long planned such a visit but, despite repeated urging from William Hooker and his son Joseph, he did not go, and authorship was eventually given to the Englishman George Bentham instead. Bentham, however, who never set foot in Australia, relied on Mueller’s assistance, which was formally acknowledged on the title page of all seven volumes of Bentham’s Flora Australiensis.

Over almost twenty years, Mueller systematically loaned his vast and ever-growing Australian collections to Bentham, after first publishing the new species. His collections became “authenticated” as a result of Bentham’s work, and their return gradually transferred taxonomic control over Australian materials from England to Australia. Mueller’s proposed supplement to Flora Australiensis was never published, but his Systematic Census of Australian Plants (1882; 2nd ed., 1889) cited the many new descriptions that he and others had published subsequent to the appearance of relevant volumes of Bentham’s work. Eucalyptographia (1879–1884) offered a masterly, magnificently illustrated account of the ubiquitous Australian genus that Bentham, recognizing the deficiencies of his own treatment, had urged Mueller to write.

By the standards of his time, Mueller was very much a taxonomic “lumper” rather than a “splitter,” frequently treating differences in form that most other botanists would have regarded as sufficient to define a new species as variations induced by “climatic or geological circumstances.” The number of plant species was, he believed, greatly overrated. Convinced that only by careful examination of the variability of species in a variety of habitats could the true limits to species be set, he sought specimens from as many locations as possible. His own extensive knowledge of living plants led him, during the writing of Flora Australiensis, to engage in some vigorous differences of opinion with Bentham, who adopted a wholly herbarium-based approach. Bentham, being author, of course prevailed.

Implicit in Mueller’s argument was his view, to which he staunchly adhered even after the appearance of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, that species are fixed and immutable. The observed variability on which Darwin had erected his theory, was, Mueller argued, entirely within the boundaries of species; the notion that species themselves varied was an artifact of incorrect boundaries—more exactly, of too many boundaries—having been drawn. Though Mueller undoubtedly saw Darwinism as a threat to religious beliefs, his objection was a scientific one, as he carefully emphasized whenever he discussed the matter, whether in letters or in print. Mueller recognized that his views had become unfashionable among English-speaking naturalists but nevertheless felt duty-bound to speak out, from a scientific standpoint, against a doctrine “calculated to shake the pillars on which the consolation of so many rests” (1998–2006, vol. 2, p. 279). The introduction to Vegetation of the Chatham Islands (1864) contains his most considered statement. Consistent with his anti-Darwinian views, in his numerous publications on fossil plants, he recognized the extinction but not the evolution of forms.

Mueller did not regard genera and families in the same light as species. Far from being fixed, they were in his view merely “strongholds around which we arbitrarily array [species] to facilitate generalization, to ease the search and to aid the memory” (1864, p. 8). Their limits must always reflect the differing viewpoints of individual observers. In arranging genera, Mueller from his early days in Schleswig-Holstein was an adherent of the natural system of Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, and later Augustin Pyrame de Candolle. Robert Brown’s Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae (1810), inevitably the starting point for his study of the Australian flora, reinforced his commitment to this approach. Mueller did not, however, follow these authorities unthinkingly in every particular. While rejecting on the basis of his Australian experience some modifications to the Candollean system proposed by Bentham in Flora Australiensis, he developed rearrangements of his own, chiefly in distributing the “unnatural” Monochlamydeae into other divisions. His scheme was subsequently adopted in other major nineteenth-century works on the Australian flora as more “truly natural” than rival systems.

Mueller gave absolute precedence to priority in the naming of species, leading him, in his Systematic Census, to abandon some widely used names in favor of names which, while published first, had become neglected. For this he was heavily criticized by Bentham and his colleagues at Kew, who were sometimes willing to abandon strict priority, and who dismissed laboring over priorities as useless “philological” work. Mueller was unrepentant, and his views eventually prevailed in the international code of nomenclature.

Royal Botanic Garden Melbourne Shortly after Mueller returned to Melbourne from northern Australia in mid-1857, directorship of the Melbourne botanic garden was added to his responsibilities as government botanist. Soon he found himself also in charge of the colony’s zoo, housed in the garden from 1858 to 1861. He proved an energetic administrator, overseeing an extensive series of capital works, and exchanging seeds and plants with gardens in many other parts of the world. As a result of these exchanges, the number of plant varieties in the garden increased from fifteen hundred to around seventy-five hundred. Mueller’s large-scale distribution of plants and flowers within the colony brought him into conflict with local nurserymen, and he was also criticized by those who did not share his view of the garden as predominantly a scientific and educational resource, and wished to see it developed as a public pleasure space. Eventually, in 1873, his enemies triumphed and he was dismissed—or, rather, the position of director of the garden was abolished. Though he continued as government botanist, this was a devastating blow to Mueller both personally and because he believed that access to living specimens in the garden was vital to his scientific work. Even twenty years later, merely to mention his eviction would still bring tears to his eyes.

Mueller was a lifelong enthusiast for acclimatizing useful species, plant or animal, in new parts of the world, and he regarded plant acclimatization as a major function of any worthwhile botanic garden. His vast program of exchanges of seeds and plants with other gardens around the world was intended not merely to embellish the Melbourne garden but to provide the basis for large-scale distributions from the garden of potentially useful exotic varieties. In common with his contemporaries, Mueller had little notion of nature as a fragile ecological structure that needed protecting; on the contrary, he sought to fill gaps in the creation with appropriate and useful foreign species. He even looked forward to establishing “cold-enduring plants and herbs” in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands, to open the way for eventual settlement of the region. His Select Extra-Tropical Plants Readily Eligible for Industrial Culture or Naturalisation, first published in 1876 under a slightly different title, became his most widely published work, appearing in German, French, and posthumous Portuguese translations, and in English in Indian and American as well as several Australian editions. Mueller helped establish many exotic species in Australia, some of them extremely useful. Others, however, quickly ran out of control and became notorious weeds. At the same time, Mueller was vigorously exporting Australian species elsewhere. Eucalyptus globulus was a particular favorite for regions with a suitable climate, both as a fast-growing source of timber and, because of its extraordinary transpiration rate, to help drain swampy areas. Largely as a result of his efforts, this species became naturalized in many parts of the world.

In his early years, Mueller enthusiastically advocated exploitation of Victoria’s forests. In later years, however, as he observed their widespread destruction, he began calling for sustainable management of what was left. Where notable species were threatened with extinction, he became a preservationist, calling for permanent reservation of areas where these species flourished. The successful public campaign that followed is generally seen as the start of the national parks movement in Victoria.

Mueller was closely associated with almost every significant Australian exploring initiative in the second half of the nineteenth century. He maintained a close relationship with the German geographical publishing house of Justus Perthes, publisher of Petermann’s geographische Mittheilungen, keeping the founder of the journal, August Petermann, and his successors abreast of the exploration of inland Australia and furnishing them with up-to-date data for incorporation in their maps. Chiefly as a result of Mueller’s activities, these maps became recognized as the best available maps of Australia. Explorers grateful for Mueller’s support bestowed names of his choosing on geographical features that they encountered, and the publication of these on Perthes’s maps helped ensure that they stuck.

In the 1880s and 1890s, Mueller led an Australian campaign promoting the scientific exploration of Antarctica. Though he and his colleagues failed to achieve this objective, they were instrumental in reawakening international interest in the region and thus contributed indirectly to the remarkable efflorescence of Antarctic exploration that occurred soon afterward. They also succeeded in establishing Antarctic exploration as a task for scientists rather than old-style explorers seeking merely to traverse new territory.

Throughout his working life, in addition to his enormous output of scientific publications, Mueller maintained a vast correspondence that kept him in touch with fellow scientists elsewhere. He also supplied botanical, zoological, mineralogical and ethnographical materials to institutions around the world. He was elected to more than one hundred scientific societies, including the Leopoldina (1857), the Royal Geographical Society (1858), the Linnean Society (1859), the Royal Society of London (1861), and the Paris Academy of Sciences (1895).The Royal Society awarded him one of its two Royal Medals for 1888. The king of Württemberg granted him his “von” in 1867 and made him a hereditary baron (Freiherr) four years later, the British knighted him in 1879, and other nations bestowed some twenty other knighthoods and many lesser honors on him. A small, wiry man, Mueller never married, though he became engaged on at least two occasions. Following his death, the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science created its Mueller Medal to recognize important Australian contributions to science. His name is also commemorated in at least two genera, many species, and several geographic features, and in the title of the scientific journal published by the Melbourne Herbarium, Muelleria.


For lists of Mueller’s publications, see Churchill et al. and Home et al., eds., cited below. Mueller’s massive files of incoming correspondence, exploration diaries, and working notes disappeared, presumably destroyed, some years after his death. However, significant numbers of letters and other papers survive at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, the Public Record Office Victoria, Kew Gardens, Gotha, and elsewhere. The Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne holds photocopies of many letters held in other repositories.


Plants Indigenous to the Colony of Victoria. Melbourne:

Government Printer, 1862–1865.

Vegetation of the Chatham Islands. Melbourne: Government Printer, 1864.

Descriptive Notes on Papuan Plants. Melbourne: Government Printer, 1875–1890.

Select Extra-Tropical Plants: Readily Eligible for Industrial Culture or Naturalisation, with Indications of Their Native Countries and Some of Their Uses (1876). 9th ed. Melbourne: Government Printer, 1895.

Introduction to Botanic Teachings at the Schools of Victoria, through References to Leading Native Plants. Melbourne: Government Printer, 1877.

The Native Plants of Victoria, Succinctly Defined. Melbourne:

Government Printer, 1879.

Systematic Census of Australian Plants, with Chronologic, Literary and Geographic Annotations. Melbourne: M’Carron, Bird, 1882.

Eucalyptographia: A Descriptive Atlas of the Eucalypts of Australia and the Adjoining Islands. Melbourne: Government Printer, 1879–1884.

Key to the System of Victorian Plants. Melbourne: Government Printer, 1886–1888.

Description and Illustrations of the Myoporinous Plants of Australia.

Melbourne: Government Printer, 1886.

Iconography of Australian Species of Acacia and Cognate Genera.

Melbourne: Government Printer, 1887–1888.

Iconography of Australian Salsolaceous Plants. Melbourne: R. S.

Brain, Government Printer, 1889–1891.

Home, R. W., and Sara Maroske. “Ferdinand von Mueller and the French Consuls.” Explorations: A Bulletin Devoted to the Study of Franco-Australian Links 18 (1997): 3–50. Mueller’s correspondence with successive French consuls in Melbourne.

Regardfully Yours: Selected Correspondence of Ferdinand von Mueller. 3 vols. Edited by R. W. Home, et al. Bern, Switzerland: Lang, 1998–2006.

Revised versions of lists of Mueller’s plant names and of his publications are included in volume 1. Volume 3 includes a list of Mueller’s many honors, memberships, and other awards.

Voigt, Johannes H., ed. Die Erforschung Australiens: Der Briefwechsel zwischen August Petermann und Ferdinand von Mueller, 1861–1878. Gotha, Germany: Justus Perthes, 1996.

Mueller’s correspondence with August Petermann.


Churchill, D. M., T. B. Muir, and D. M. Sinkora. “The Published Works of Ferdinand J. H. Mueller (1825–1896).”

Muelleria 4 (1978): 1–120, and “Supplement.” Muelleria 5 (1984): 229–248. List of works.

Cohn, Helen, and Sara Maroske, “Relief from Duties of Minor Importance:

The Removal of Baron von Mueller from the Directorship of the Royal Botanic Gardens.” Victorian Historical Journal 67 (1996): 103–127.

Daley, Charles. “Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, K.C.M.G., M.D., F.R.S., Botanist, Explorer, and Geographer.” Victorian Historical Magazine 10 (1924): 23–75.

Gillbank, Linden. “Alpine Botanical Expeditions of Ferdinand Mueller.” Muelleria 7 (1992): 473–489.

Home, R. W., ed. The Scientific Savant in Nineteenth-Century Australia. Canberra: Australian Academy of Science, 1997 (Historical Records of Australian Science 11, no. 3 [June 1997]: 281–454).

_____. , Sara Maroske, A. M. Lucas, and P. J. Lucas. “Why Explore Antarctica?: Australian Discussions in the 1880s.” Australian Journal of Politics and History 38 (1992): 386–413.

Lucas, A. M. “Baron von Mueller: Protégé Turned Patron.” In Australian Science in the Making, edited by R. W. Home. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

_____. “Letters, Shipwrecks, and Taxonomic Confusion:

Establishing a Reputation from Australia.” Historical Records of Australian Science 10 (1995): 207–221.

_____. “Assistance at a Distance: George Bentham, Ferdinand von Mueller, and the Production of Flora australiensis.” Archives of Natural History 30 (2003): 255–281.]

_____. , P. J. Lucas, Thomas A. Darragh, and Sara Maroske.

“Colonial Pride and Metropolitan Expectations: The British Museum and Melbourne’s Meteorites.” British Journal for the History of Science 27 (1994): 65–87.

_____. , Sara Maroske, and Andrew Brown-May. “Bringing Science to the Public: Ferdinand von Mueller and Botanical Education in Victorian Victoria.” Annals of Science 63 (2006): 25–57.

Maroske, Sara. “Science by Correspondence: Ferdinand Mueller and Botany in Nineteenth-Century Australia.” PhD diss., University of Melbourne, 2005.

_____. , and Andrew Brown-May. “Breaking into the Quietude:

Re-reading the Personal Life of Ferdinand von Mueller.” Public History Review 3 (1994): 36–63.

_____. , and Helen M. Cohn. “‘Such Ingenious Birds’:

Ferdinand Mueller and William Swainson in Victoria.” Muelleria 7 (1992): 529–553.

Muir, T. B. “An Index to the New Taxa, New Combinations, and New Names Published by Ferdinand J. H. Mueller.” Muelleria 4 (1979): 123–168. Index to the plant names introduced by Mueller.

Powell, J. M. “A Baron under Siege: Von Mueller and the Press in the 1870s.” Victorian Historical Journal 50 (1979): 18–35.

Voigt, Johannes H., and Doris M. Sinkora. “Ferdinand (von) Müller in Schleswig-Holstein; or, The Making of a Scientist and of a Migrant.” Historical Records of Australian Science 11 (1996): 13–33.

Willis, Margaret. By Their Fruits: A Life of Ferdinand von Mueller, Botanist and Explorer. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1949. The best separately published biography available to date, but cannot always be relied on.

R. W. Home

About this article

Mueller, Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von

Updated About content Print Article