Nees von Esenbeck, Christian Gottfried (Daniel)

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(b. Reichenberg Castle, near Erbach, Hesse, 14 February 1776; d. Breslau, Silesia [now Wroclaw, Poland], 16 March 1858), botany.

Nees’s father, estate administrator for the count of Erbach, had as official residence a castle in the Odenwald. There Nees was born and raised. He received a highly liberal education at home, and in 1792 he entered the humanistic high school in Darmstadt. From 1796 to 1799 he attended the University of Jena, studying medicine and natural history under Batsch, and philosophy under Schelling. In this period Nees was drawn into the nearby Weimar circle. His personal friendship with Goethe, which led to years of correspondence, greatly influenced his career. After receiving a doctorate from Giessen in 1800, Nees practiced medicine in the Odenwald (according to his autobiography; some others state Frankfurt) and experimented with Mesmerian magnetic techniques. Financially his practice was a failure—he cared only for sick patients. His wife of one year died in childbirth, and in 1802 Nees retired to a small estate—Sickershausen, near Kitzingen, Bavaria—which she had left him. A move to the University of Jena, encouraged by Goethe, was prevented by war in 1806. At Sickershausen he lived the life of a country gentleman, happily married to his second wife, nee von Mettingh. Nees acquired a working knowledge of the major European languages except the Slavic ones. (He was coauthor of a book on modern Greek history and poetry in translation, published in 1825.) He also assembled natural history collections, some of them with his younger brother, Friedrich, and wrote scientific papers and reviews. By 1818 the estate was in such bad shape that he had to get a job.

Thus Nees’s career proper started when he was forty-two. He assumed the professorship of botany at Erlangen, as Schebe’s belated successor; but in the same year the Prussian minister of education, Karl von Stein zum Altenstein, Nees’s protector, appointed him to the chair of botany at the newly founded University of Bonn.1 With zest he established a botanical garden, aided by his brother, whom he appointed inspector. Goethe helped even here, by contributing seeds.2 In 1830, ostensibly at his request, Nees was allowed to exchange professorships with Treviranus at Breslau, where he started by reorganizing the botanical garden. As professor of botany he was progressively less successful. Presumably his lectures were too full of obscurantist Naturphilosophie, and the students turned to his colleague Goeppert. But Nees made a name for himself in courses on speculative philosophy and social ethics. Having, at Altenstein’s request, drafted the requirements for the high school teaching certificate in natural science, he became the first examiner in the field at Breslau (1839). He was promptly relieved of this post when Altenstein died and was replaced, in 1840, by the reactionary Eichhorn. In 1852 Nees provided a textbook for the teachers of natural science, dealing with the study of form in nature. But natural history teaching in the schools faltered after charges that it was conducive to agnosticism.

At Breslau, Nees played an active role in civic affairs. It started with the organization of public scientific lectures and gradually broadened. He was cofounder of a successful health insurance scheme. In 1845 he became the beloved leader (“Father Nees”) of a community of “Christian Catholics” following J. Ronge. This radical movement soon aroused the active opposition of the state. Nees freely expressed his deeply devout views in articles and tracts, such as his 1845 publication on matrimony in an intelligent society, and its relation to state and church. He practiced what he preached. His third marriage, to a weaver’s daughter from Warmbrunn, in the Riesen-gebirge, was without state or church sanction but was reputedly a model marriage.

As a boy Nees had been deeply impressed by the French Revolution. The Napoleonic era brought disillusionment. He became a fervent and conspiratorial supporter of German unity, placing his hope in enlightened Prussian leadership, but was in turn disillusioned by the conservatism of the crown. Thus the way was opened to his becoming an active radical democrat, a liberal intellectual. (Other professors at Breslau were also politically active, but as conservatives or moderates.) Nees stood alone then—a German botanist, a member of a group not renowned for liberalism. In 1848 he helped found the Breslau Workers’ Club. He was elected a deputy from Breslau to the Prussian National Assembly meeting at Berlin in 1848. Even the other members of Waldeck’s left group —striving, like Nees, for an English-style constitutional monarchy—shuddered at his speeches and at the “extremism” of the draft constitution he presented. Apparently the most hair-raising article of that document was “The people is sovereign, and the concept ‘subject’ is struck from the life of the state for all time.” Nees presided over the Berlin Workers’ Congress and also founded (in Berlin) the German Workers’ Brotherhood. In January 1849 he was banished from Berlin for life “because of dangerous socialistic tendencies.”

Back in Breslau, Nees’s house was subject to constant police search. In 1851 he was suspended from his professorship; in June 1852, at the age of seventy-six, he was dismissed without pension. The official charge was moral turpitude; specifically, concubinage. (In the Roman law of Germany that was the term for the “common law” marriage of Germanic Anglo-Saxon law; it was a “bad thing” if it caused “public annoyance.”) The real reason, his political activity, apparently was sufficiently protected. Nees had no money; it had all been spent subsidizing scientific publications and on charity.

Pitiful advertisements announced the sale of his herbarium, containing some 80,000 specimens or 40,000 species.3 His library also was sold. He moved to a garret. When he died, at the age of eighty-two, an immense crowd (reputedly 10,000) of mourners, mainly artisans and students, accompanied him to his grave.

Nees had many children. I have found information on only one: Carl Nees von Esenbeck was inspector of the Breslau Botanical Garden from 1853 to 1880. Friedrich Nees von Esenbeck, a Christian Catholic writer, was probably another. He even left some minor children; the Leopoldina contributed 100 copies of an engraved portrait of him for sale by their guardian.4

Nees’s greatest contribution to science has not yet been mentioned. The venerable Academia Caesarea Leopoldina-Carolina Naturae Curiosorunu, the Imperial German Academy of Natural Science (or Leopoldina), in Erlangen, had fallen on bad times during the Napoleonic era. Nees was elected a member in 1816, with the cognomen Aristoteles, and in the same year he became an officer. On 3 August 1818 he was elected president. To German science he would remain “Herr President” until his death. The Leopoldina, however, was not viable. When he was invited to move from Erlangen to Bonn, Nees suggested to the Prussian chancellor K. A. von Hardenberg and to Altenstein that he should bring the Leopoldina with him from Bavaria to Prussia. The two gentlemen were not only enlightened, but as politicians they were quick to recognize a splendid propaganda stroke. They gladly accepted and guaranteed financial support.5 Outlasting even the privileges of the house of Thurn und Taxis (the last hereditary postmaster generalship was lost in 1918), the Leopoldina is the only surviving institution of the Holy Roman Empire. The proposal by Nees and D. G. Kieser, addressed to the abortive Frankfurt Parliament in 1848, to make an expanded Leopoldina the center of German cultural life, was bound to fail. The officers of the Leopoldina insisted on Nees’s remaining in his unpaid presidency even when he had been stripped of his professorship; and the Prussian government continued its subsidies, for the Hapsburgs were only too anxious to regain the Leopoldina.6 Nees commented that he was “dead to the Prussian state, but lives still for the Academy.”7 Nees personally edited forty-seven volumes of the Nova acta Academiae Caesareae Leopoldino Carolinae germanicae naturae curiosorum, the high quality of which was partly the result of his bringing the artist Aimé Henry to Bonn. His last direct contribution was the preface to Nova acta,26, Abt. 2, dated 1 February 1858. Nees spared no money, including the last of his own, on publications. He apologized for the overdraft he had incurred.8 His successor was not amused, but he was left a flourishing and proud academy.9

A logical outgrowth of the rebirth of the Leopoldina was the invention of the “annual meeting” by L. Oken in 1822. This type of gathering, which almost immediately assumed the detailed form so familiar to the present-day American scientist, was a major force in the blossoming of German science. It was copied by the British Association (1831) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1848). It is incomprehensible that the visionary Nees (perhaps in uncharacteristic jealousy) bungled the request to have it made an official practice of the Leopoldina,10 although its adoption became inevitable.

Nees’s primary services to German science were, in order of importance, as an organizer; as an editor, not only of the Nova acta but also of a vast body of additional material; and as a transmitter of outstanding foreign publications. In the last field the item of greatest impact was the five-volume edition of Robert Brown’s botanical works, … vermischte botanische Schriften (Nuremberg, 1825–1834). Volume III is the original publication of the second edition of the Prodromus florae Novae hollandiae in Latin; the bulk of the remaining volumes consists of German translations, largely by Nees himself, with his occasional notes and additions. Nees was highly conscious of the antiquated Linnaean flavor persisting in much of German botany; and one of the avowed aims of his two-volume Handbuch der Botanik (1821–1822) was to stress the modern structural work, including that done in France (he leaned heavily on Mirbel) and by Robert Brown in England, and even the inclusion of what now are called physiological aspects. The work seems to be Nees’s most dismal failure, although Cohn (1858) reported that it acted as a major stimulus. It is permeated not only by Naturphilosophie but also by an attempt to apply Goethe’s theory of metamorphosis (the work is dedicated to him). The books consist of a series of aphorisms that to an unsympathetic reviewer appear to be outpourings from a strange dream world. If his lectures were similar, that would explain Nees’s failure as a botany professor. But he did keep trying. As late as 1850 he asked Cohn to give a demonstration of microscopy to his students, but the only decent microscope available was, shamefully, Cohn’s private one. In his later writings Nees managed to disentangle his botany and Naturphilosophie, and they both became “pure”—the latter in his book Naturphilosophie (1841).

Finally there are Nees’s direct scientific contributions; they are far-reaching, even if the medical ones are excluded. In zoology there are major contributions to the taxonomy of ichneumon flies. His earliest botanical monograph (1814) dealt with freshwater algae. This was followed by a systematic treatment of the fungi, System der Pilze und Schwämme (1816).

A digression is required here. Nees’s younger brother, Theodor Friedrich Ludwig Nees von Esenbeck (1787–1837), progressed from being his admirer to coauthor of numerous botanical works, especially during their joint period at Bonn. In 1805 he became an apprentice in the Martius pharmacy in Erlangen. (This led to his connection with Martius and Brazilian plants, for he interested Carl von Martius in botany.) In 1817 he was appointed inspector at the botanical garden in Leiden (hence the link to C. F. Blume and Javanese plants). Friedrich’s brother brought him to the new Bonn garden in 1819, and at Bonn he became professor of pharmacy. Some confusion in the literature needs disentangling: It was Friedrich who made the contributions to the development of the mosses and to the discovery of spermatozoids in plants (in Sphagnum). The genus Neesia Blume is dedicated to him, while the genus Esenbeckia Humboldt et Bonpland ex Kunth commemorates C. G. Nees. The most important joint works by the brothers deal with cinnamon and with mycological subjects.

Most of Nees’s botanical work is in the form of taxonomic monographs, initially dealing with the German flora: his treatment of the genus Rubus and of the Astereae, and the moss flora Bryologica germanica, written with Hornschuch and Sturm. (Volume I of the latter [1823] contains a superb Neesian history of the field.) In keeping with the age of discovery, he became a world expert on certain groups; their diversity is spectacular. In the flowering plants the main ones are the Lauraceae, Acanthaceae, Solanaceae, Restionaceae, Juncaceae, Cyperaceae, and Gramineae, which Nees treated variously for the Brazilian (Martius), Indian, Australian, and South African floras, or for worldwide works (Acanthaceae in A. de Candolle’s Prodromus, XI).

Of major interest are Nees’s contributions to the study of liverworts. He wrote monographs on two tropical floras, those of Java (1830) and Brazil (1833, for Martius). His four-volume account of the European liverworts, Naturgeschichte der europäischen Le-hermoose (1833–1838), is regarded as his botanical masterpiece. It constitutes the only published part of a projected series of reminiscences from the Riesengebirge, the mountains in which Nees spent his spare time on excursions, accompanied by a local amateur botanist, J. von Flotow. The work begins with a superb introduction to the subject. The main body presents a completely new level of detail, with the recognition of innumerable subspecific variation and growth forms and a wealth of information on substrate and habitat. The final volume ends, characteristically, with a German translation, by Flotow, of Mirbel’s studies on Marchantia, annotated by Nees. In 1841 Nees published an annotated reprint of G. Raddi’s important but overlooked Jungermanniografia etrusca (1818). Nees’s system of the world’s liverworts was originally contributed to the second edition of J. Lindley’s Natural System of Botany in 1836—Nees used Lindley’s system in arranging his own general herbarium.11 It was refined for the Synopsis hepaticarum. This work, still a standard reference volume, deals with all the liverworts then known. It was organized by Lehmann, principal of the Hamburg classical high school. Nees’s coauthors were C. M. Gottsche, who practiced medicine in Altona and became the greatest hepaticologist of the century, and J. B. W. Lindenberg, Lübeck-Hamburgian administrator of Bergedorf. Nees’s talent is perhaps most concisely displayed in his review of Corda’s Deutschlands Jungermannien and in some notes on liverworts published in 1833.12 The latter range from a pungent attack on chauvinism to the publication of a revolutionary report by Flotow on the culturing of liverworts in his room and the results obtained.


1.Flora, 1 (1818), 137,411, 518.

2.Ibid., 2 (1819), 406.

3.Ibid., 34 (1851), 559; 35 (1852). 347; Bonplandia, 2 (1854), 161–162.

4.Leopoldina, 2 (1861), 75.

5. For documents see Nova acta,10 (1820), vii–xii; 11 (1823), IX-X

6. Cf. Bonplandia, 1 (1852),24–26; 6 (1858), 1–2; Nova acta, 24, Abt. 1 (1854), li–lviii, lxxxviii–lxxxix.

7.Ibid., 23 , Abt, 1 (1851), xxiii.

8.Bonplandia, 6 (1858), 152.

9.Nova acta, 27 (1860), xciv.

10. Cf. Verhandlungen Gesellschaft deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte, 10 (1832), 4, 6; Nova acta, 24 , Abt, 1 (1854), xi ff.

11. See Flora, 35 (1852), 347.

12.Ibid., 18 (1835), “Literaturberichte,” 145–165; 14 (1833), 385–412.


I. Original Works. No proper Nees bibliography has been published, but it would comprise some 1,500 entries. Listings of his major works are available in the following standard volumes: British Museum General Catalogue of Printed Books, CLXIX (1963), 477–478, including nonscientific publications; Catalogue of the Library of the British Museum (Natural History), III (1910), 1407–1408; and the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers,IV, 583–585, which lists 72 of his major papers. The magnitude becomes clear from the general index to Flora, 1 (1818)-25 (1842), which lists more than 300 items by Nees.

Nees’s insect collection is at the University of Bonn, his remaining private papers in the municipal archives at Wroclaw, and the liverwort section of his herbarium at the University of Strasbourg.

II. Secondary Literature. Abundant contemporary information is found in the journals Bonplandia and Flora, and in the introductory material to volumes of the Nova acta Aeademiae Caesareae Leapoldino Carolinae germanicae naturae curiosorum. Some of this has been cited in the notes. A one-page leaflet issued by Nees on 1 Feb. 1851, entitled Erklärung and dealing with his suspension from his professorship, is tipped into the copy of his Handbuch der Botanik, I, in the library of the German Society of Philadelphia. The MS of a full biography by H. Winkler, obviously unpublishable during Nazi times, came into the hands of an unidentified West German free church organization (Nova acta, 2nd ser., 15 [1952], 41), There is also a personal communication from the late Professor R. Zaunick of the Leopoldina, 17 Nov.1956. For a charming photograph of Nees’s head taken from the Weigelt photograph, a copy of which Nees presented to Humboldt, see Bonplandia,6 (1858), 144 (an unsatisfactory engraving from this photograph is in F. Cohn [1858]).

Other works of value are the unsigned “Nees von Esenbeck, 1,” in Der grosse Brockhaus, XIII (Leipzig, 1932), 250; F. T. Bratranek, Neue Mittheilungen aus Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s handschriftlichem Nachlasse, II (Leipzig,1874), Nees-Goethe correspondence, pp. 13–180; F. Cohn, “Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck,” in Illustrirte Zeitung (Leipzig), 30, no. 778 (29 May 1858), 345–347, published anonymously; P. Cohn, Ferdinand Cohn, 2nd ed. (Breslau, 1901); G. Kaufmann, ed., Festschrift zur Feier des hundertjährigen Bestehens der Universität Breslau, 2 vols. (Breslau, 1911); D. G. Kieser, “Lebensbeschreibung des… Dr. Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck,” in Nova acta Academiae Caesareae Leopoldino Carolinae germanicae naturae curiosorum,27 (1860), Ixxxv-xcii, which includes Nees’s autobiography, written in 1836; C. Nissen, Die botanische Buchillustration,I (Stuttgart, 1966), 217–218, for the relationship of A. Henry to Nees and the Leopoldina; G. Schmid, Goethe und die Naturwissenschaften (Halle, 1940); B. Seemann and W. E. G. Seemann, eds., “Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck,” in Bonplandia,6 (1858), 145–152, which includes a list of the more than 70 scientific societies to which Nees belonged, an account of the funeral, an obituary by a Dr. M. Elsner originally published in a Breslau newspaper, a description of Nees’s final illness by his physician, and his official “testament” explaining the overdraft for which he was responsible to the officers of the Leopoldina; H. Winkler, “Christian Gottfried Nees von Esenbeck als Naturforscher und Mensch,” in Naturwissenschaftliche Wochenschrift,36 (1921), 337–346; and “Christian Gottfried Nees von Esenbeck,” in Historische Kommission fur Schlesien, Schlesische Lebensbilder, II (Breslau, 1926), 203–208; and E. Wunschmann. “Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck,” in Allgemeine deutsche Biographic, XXIII (Leipzig, 1886), 368–376; and “Theodor Friedrich Ludwig Nees von Esenbeck,” ibid., pp. 376–380.

Johannes Proskauer