Treub, Melchior

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(b. voorschoten, Holland, 26 December 1851; d. St. Raphael, France, 3 October 1910)


Treub’s father was burgomaster of Voorschoten, a small village; both his parents were of Swiss extraction, and spoke French at home. Treub himself was also fluent in English, German, and Dutch, but preferred French for his scientific publications. He attended secondary school at Leiden, then entered the university there, where he won a gold medal for a report on the true nature of lichens, written in response to a prize question. He expanded this work into the thesis for which he was granted the doctorate, summa cum laude, in 1873. Treub remained at Leiden for the next seven years as docent and assistant in the botanical institute under his former tutor, Professor W. F. R. Suringar. During this period he wrote twenty-nine papers on a variety of subjects—especially plant cytology, histology, nucleus division, and embryology–that demonstrated his acute powers of observation, manual dexterity in cutting sections, and skill as a draftsman. He was nominated to the Netherlands Academy of Sciences at the unusually early age of twenty–eight.

In 1880 Treub was called to the directorship of the botanical gardens at Buitenzorg (now Bogor), West Java, where he succeeded R. H. C. C. Scheffer. The complex consisted of the gardens themselves; a building housing administrative offices, a museum, an herbarium, and a library; the Cultuurtuin, a garden devoted to the cultivation of plants of economic importance, attached to a school of agriculture; and a mountain garden at Tjibodas (at 1,400 meters). The institution also published two periodicals, the Annales du jardin botanique de Buitenzorg and the Jaarverslag, its annual report, but these, like the entire establishment, had fallen into disarray. Treub set out to revitalize the institution, and in so doing developed formidable administrative skills and powers of persuasion.

Since a scientific center was, in a colonial commercial society, almost a luxury, Treub sought to publicize its merits. Many decisions about the Buitenzorg garden came from The Hague, which also set the budget, so Treub therefore wrote a number of articles for a literary journal in the Netherlands, by which he made the public aware of the economic potential of the colony. He published the annual reports of the garden punctually, and used these documents as a means of informing both the government authorities and the general public about the work being done at the garden and about its goals. Through the Annales and through a series of basic studies (on the embryology of Cycadaceae, Loranthaceae, and Burmanniaceae, and on the latex of Euphorbiaceae, classes of climbing plants, pitcher plants, and the structure of plants infested by ants) Treub also won the attention of the international botanical community.

By 1881 Treub had redesigned the curriculum of the agricultural school and had hired an assistant director, W. Burck, who began to develop the museum along economic botanical lines. Burck also did research on caoutchouc (rubber) trees and on commercial products of the Dipterocarpaceae and cultivated caoutchouc trees in a special garden at Tjipetir. The results of his work were too voluminous to be published in the annual report, so Treub got permission to start a new periodical, the Mededeelingen, which first appeared in 1883. As foreign scientists began to visit the gardens in increasing numbers, Treub equipped a nearby abandoned military hospital as a laboratory; this opened in January 1885, and became known as the Treub Laboratory. The results of the work done there were published in the Annales; Treub had thus assured himself of the unpaid services of a whole staff of eminent botanists.

Treub’s campaign was successful and both the government and the community of planters became convinced of the value of applied scientific research. He secured additional staff, again at no cost to the institution, by suggesting an arrangement whereby the planters assumed the salaries of his assistants, while the government agreed to let their work proceed under Treub’s supervision and their results be published in the Madedeelingen, Under this system, researches were made concerning diseases of tobacco, tea, coffee, indigo, and cacao plants. A chain of experimental stations was established since much of the necessary work could not be performed in Buitenzorg’s climate and soil conditions.

As the facilities and staff for applied botanical research were expanded, Treub began to plan new divisions for basic research. In 1887, while on sick leave in Europe, he approached both the Netherlands and foreign governments and obtained “Buitenzorg funds,” annual or biennial grants for prominent botanists to work in Java; during the same leave, he also sought private funds to finance explorations of Indonesia. (The latter effort resulted in the foundation, in 1890, of the Society for the Promotion of the Natural Sciences in the Netherlands Indies, a body that still exists and is commonly called the “Treub Society.”)

Following his return to Java, Treub supervised the further expansion of the botanic garden. A phytochemical-pharmacological laboratory was established in 1887 and an agricultural chemistry laboratory in 1890; by 1894 Treub was able to found a zoological museum and to hire an agricultural zoologist, J. C. Koningsberger, whose work eventually led to the foundation of an institute of plant diseases. He further acquired a forest preserve adjacent to the mountain garden at Tjibodas, and in 1891 erected a field laboratory there.

During this time Treub also conducted a major study on rice; his own research on food crops, coupled with his new laboratories, was the nucleus from which the Java General Agriculture Experiment Station grew. In addition, Treub encouraged the publication of the journal Teysmannia (begun in 1894), which was devoted largely to practical short notes from the botanic garden; in 1900 he also laid out a series of demonstration fields that were intended to benefit farmers as well as administrators. A new library was built in 1896, and by 1905 the complex that Treub had built up was elevated to a full civil department, of which Treub was named director. He continued to serve at the same time as director of the gardens themselves.

A number of significant botanical studies were published during Treub’s tenure as director, chief among them a Flore de Buitenzorg and the Icones Bogoriensis. In 1894 he started yet another periodical, the Bulletin du jardin botanique de Buitenzorg, which was designed to reach the international scientific community. Despite the pressures of his administrative duties, Treub also did research of his own and published his results. These studies include a work on the embryology and biohistory of the club ferns, a study of a previously unknown form of fertilization in Casuarina (chalazogamy), writings on the embryology of Ficus and Elatostema, a theory of the origin of proteins based on the finding of prussic acid in Pangium, and works on the sociology of the rain forest and the new flora of Krakatoa. He also, in 1886, wrote a history of the Buitenzorg botanic garden.

By the end of 1909 Treub’s health had begun to fail, and he retired from his posts to the south of France, where he planned to start a garden of exotic plants and to pursue the microscopic study of tropical plants. He was able to publish only one paper, on the embryology of Garcinia, before his death a year later.


I. Original Works. The notice by F. A. F. C. Went, cited below, lists some 103 books and papers by Treub; of these the scientific works are in French, while a number of others on a variety of subjects are in Dutch. See especially Treub’s commentaries in the Jaarverslag for the years 1880 to 1910 and, of the individual works, Onderzoekingen over de natuur der Lichenen, his thesis (Leiden, 1873); Onderzoekingen over serehziek suikerriet gedaan in ’s-Lands Plantentuin te Buitenzorg (Djakarta, 1885); Geschiedenis van ’s-Lands Plantentuin te Buitenzorg (Djarkarta, 1889); Korte geschiedenis van ’s-Lands Plantentuin (Djakarta, 1892); De beteekenis van tropische botanische tuinen (Djakarta, 1892); Over de taak en werkkring van ’s-Lands Plantentuin te Buitenzorg (Buitenzorg, 1899); and the posthumously published Landbouw, Januari 1905-October 1909. Beredeneerd overzicht der verrichtingen en bomoeiingen met het oog op de praktijk van land-, tuin-, en boschbouw, veeteelt, visscherij en aanverwante aangelegenheden (Amsterdam, 1910).

II. Secondary Literature. See F. A. F. C. Went, “In Memoriam, “in Annales du jardin botanique de Buitenzorg, 2nd ser., 9 (1911), i-xxxii.

C. G. G. J. van Steenis