Persoon, Christiaan Hendrik

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(b. Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, 31 December 1761; d. Paris, France, 15 November 1836)

botany, mycology.

Persoon was the son of Christiaan Daniel Persoon (originally Persohn), a native of the island of Usedom [now Uznam] on the coast of Prussian Pomerania but a Dutch citizen at the time his son was born, and Elisabeth Wilhelmina Groenewald. The belief that his mother was a Hottentot has long since been disproved. Sent to Europe in 1775 for further education, he was orphaned the following year by the death of his father. Since Persoon and his two sisters were minors, their guardianship fell to the orphan masters at the Cape; and Persoon was to receive a sizable sum of money if he continued his studies. This legacy was sufficient to provide him with a modest annual income. Various adverse circumstances, however, caused him to live under the most dire conditions during a considerable period of his later life in Paris. He never accepted a paid position.

After attending the Gymnasium at Lingen, on the River Ems, he studied theology at Halle (1783–1786), medicine for a brief period at Leiden (1786), and medicine and the natural sciences at Göttingen (1787–1802). He never completed his university studies but in 1799 was awarded an honorary Ph.D. by the Kaiserlich-Leopoldinisch-Karolinische Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher, then at Erlangen. He was elected a foreign or corresponding member of a number of learned societies. Almost nothing is known about his life while he was in Germany. At Halle he met F. W. von Leysser and other botanists, who may have been responsible for his turning to that field. At Göttingen he met J. A. Murray, professor of botany, and, undoubtedly, many young botanists who later became famous. Certainly half a dozen of them contributed important works on mycology. He must have known G. F. Hoffmann, then famous, who introduced Goethe to cryptogamy.

In 1802, for an unknown reason, Persoon moved to Paris, where he resided until his death. During much of this time his financial distress was great. In 1828 the Dutch government granted him a pension in exchange for his botanical collections, which are now in the Rijksherbarium at Leiden. As a gesture of gratitude, at his death Persoon donated his newly accumulated herbarium and library to the Dutch government. He maintained a wide correspondence with many botanists; a very extensive set of letters is now in the possession of the University Library at Leiden. He sought, unsuccessfully, to return to the Cape by invoking the assistance of James E. Smith of London.

Persoon is known in particular for his mycological publications, which culminated in the Synopsis fungorum (1801), rightly considered the basis of modern mycology. His classification was later elaborated by E. M. Fries and P. A. Saccardo. A modification of his system of the “macromycetes,” now known as the Friesian tradition, still plays an important role in mycology, although it is gradually being replaced by a radically different system based mainly on microscopic characters. The influence of the Synopsis during the decades following its publication was enormous, for it made possible an unprecedented growth of the number of described genera and species of fungi. Persoon began a greatly revised version of the Synopsis under the title Mycologia europaea. Three volumes were published (1822–1826), but it remained incomplete.

At almost the same time the Swedish botanist and mycologist E. M. Fries began a rival work, the Systema mycologicum (1821–1832), which soon replaced Persoon’s Synopsis. The latter has been accepted as the starting point for the nomenclature of the Gasteromycetes, Uredinales, and Ustilaginales; Fries’s Systema became the starting point for the nomenclature of “fungi caeteri.” In France one of Persoon’s correspondents, J. B. Mougeot, kept the Persoonian tradition alive; and in the Vosges and the French Jura a flourishing group of mycologists included Lucien Quélet, Émile Boudier, and N. T. Patouillard. The mycological department of the Rijksherbarium publishes Persoonia. A Mycological Journal, and he also has been commemorated by a number of generic names, including Persoonia J. E. Smith (Proteaceae).

Persoon’s importance as a phanerogamist is firmly based on his Synopsis plantarum (1805–1807), which sought to describe briefly all the phanerogams then known. Earlier he had reedited Murray’s fifteenth edition of Linnaeus’ Systema vegetabilium (1797). He advised F. W. Junghuhn to go to the Dutch East Indies and was instrumental in obtaining a post for him in the service of the Dutch government.


I. Original Works. Persoon’s Tentamen dispositionis methodicae fiungorum (Leipzig, 1797) contains the first draft of his classification of fungi. Knowledge of this group was further developed in Synopsis fungorum (Göttingen, 1801), which became the basis of mycological taxonomy, and Mycologia europaea, 3 vols. (Erlangen, 1822–1826). His fame as a phanerogamist is due mainly to his Synopsis plantarum (Paris-Tübingen, 1805–1807).

II. Secondary Literature. An article by A. L. A. Fée on Persoon in Giornale botanico italiano (1846), translated into French by M. Rousseau as “Notice sur Persoon,” in Bulletin de la Société royale de botanie belgique, 30 (1891), 50–60, and into Dutch by C. E. Destrée as “Aanteekeningen betreffende C. H. Persoon,” in Nederlandsch kruidkundig Archief, 2 , no. 6 (1894), 366–377, is not altogether reliable. Other important publications (listed chronologically) are G. Schmid, “Eine unbekannte mykologische Arbeit Persoons (1793) zugleich ein Beitrag zur Lebensgeschichte des Verfassers,” in Zeitschrift für Pilzkunde, 12 (1933), 54–60; J. Ramsbottom, “C. H. Persoon and James E. Smith,” in Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, 146 (1934), 10–21; and J. L. M. Franken, “Uit die lewe van ’n beroemde Afrikaner, Christiaan Hendrik Persoon,” in Annale van die Universiteit van Stellenbosch, 15B (1937), 1–102.

M. A. Donk