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Regardfully yours Ferd. von Mueller

Sara Maroske
In 1988 an international project was commenced under the directorship of Professor R. W. Home of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne to publish a life and letters of Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. The biography planned by this project is a scientific biography, that is, a biography that will put Mueller in the context of his scientific work and that will put that work in the context of the history of each of its scientific disciplines. When the Mueller project team completes that biography it will be the first scientific biography of Mueller ­ which is somewhat remarkable considering he was Australia's greatest nineteenth­century scientist.

That is not to say that attempts at evaluating Mueller's science have not been made in the past, or that biographies of his life have not already been written. Indeed the aims and results of the successful attempts, and the reasons for the failure of the others, provide both challenges and warnings to the Mueller project.

The author of one of the first accounts of Mueller's life was Mueller himself. In 1881 Rudolph von Fischer­Benzon, a German natural scientist, wrote to Mueller asking him to contribute an entry to an historical introduction which he was writing for Prahl's Flora of Schleswig­Holstein.1 Twenty-eight pages of Mueller's resulting thirty­two page manuscript survive in the Kiel Landesbibliotek. In this document Mueller insists that hitherto he had refused to write anything about his life because he was opposed to biographies of the living, but he gives no reason for holding this view.

In the sense that the fragment is an account of his career and achievements it is a scientific autobiography. It tells us what Mueller thought was notable in his life. It tells us what he identified as the important influences on his thought, and how he wished to be remembered. The need to regard it as a very subjective document is highlighted by Mueller's treatment of his departure from the Melbourne Botanic Gardens: 'In 1873 I resigned from the Directorship of the Gardens,' Mueller declared, 'as I did not want to sacrifice the means of such an institute largely for the cultivation of lawns and flowers and other such unproductive show.'2 Mueller's explanation alludes to the debate raging at the time over whether or not Melbourne's Botanic Gardens should be for science or amusement. Manuscripts from 1873 reveal that while it was certainly true that Mueller opposed the transformation of his scientific gardens into a pleasure gardens, he did not resign. He was dismissed. The bitterness and humiliation he felt as a consequence are embedded in his lie to Fischer-Benzon, eight years later.

Mueller not only carefully controlled what he wrote about himself in public, he also tried to control the writing of others. In his will, made three years after his letter to Fischer­Benzon, he laid down terms for future biographers. His private and public life were to be separated. Baroness Maria Negri, in Italy, was to be entrusted with his private life in the form of letters, journals and certificates. The official life was to be conveyed to the world through two publications: a collection of his government reports made before his dismissal, and a selection of favourable newspaper articles from the same period.3 Mueller's executors did not fulfil either request, although because Maria Negri died before Mueller they were excused from acting in this case.

In regard to Mueller's second request, one of his executors at least could be said to have attempted to attend to his public memory ­ the Rev. William Potter. Potter moved into Mueller's house soon after Mueller's death, renaming it 'Von Mueller', apparently determined to edit Mueller's papers and to write his biography. I say apparently, because nothing but a partial bibliography of Mueller's works was produced before Potter died in 1908.4 Potter was well placed to write Mueller's biography. He was closely acquainted with Mueller, moved in Victoria's scientific circles, and as one of Mueller's executors had convenient access to his books and papers. Why he failed to produce the life and letters is not known ­ although a few Potter letters in the Mitchell Library in Sydney suggest that he found being Mueller's executor less lucrative, and more onerous than he had expected.5

The ineptitude of Mueller's executors did not go unnoticed. Professor Baldwin­Spencer tried to organize a rival group to tend Mueller's memory. As Professor McCoy related to Sydney scientist, Georgina King, in 1913: 'I find there are two great parties, at daggers drawing with each other, on the matter of properly honouring the Baron instead of sinking all personal considerations and joining to produce the best result.'6 In 1925 Baldwin­Spencer had a meeting with Charles Daley, who had already written a short memoir of Mueller,7 and asked him to undertake a full biography.8 Daley went on to publish correspondence between Mueller, Bentham and the Hookers relating to the production of Flora Australiensis, but no biography appeared.9

In her eighty­second year Mueller's niece, Henrietta Sinclair (nee Wehl), asserted that Daley had actually produced a manuscript, but that it had not been published due to the high cost of printing during the war.10 I have not yet been able to support or refute this claim.

As the number of years since Mueller's death increased the amount of material available to would­be biographers decreased. The number of people who remembered Mueller was reduced by death; and the manuscript papers relating to his life also suffered depradations. Even Potter, it seems, did not gain access to Mueller's papers before some of them were destroyed. 'The fact is,' he wrote to Georgina King in 1906, 'the late Baron's private papers were ransacked by some persons just prior to his death and a number of his papers were taken away, and have not yet been recovered. The search for them has caused me no end of trouble and worry.'11 King also heard this story from another one of Mueller's nieces, Clara Doughty. Neighbours of Mueller apparently told Doughty that when the Baron lay unconscious large quantities of boxes and packages were put out of the back windows, where there were people ready to receive them.12 What was taken and what, if anything, was recovered, is not known.

A second assault on Mueller's papers apparently took place in the 1930s under the directorship of one of Mueller's successors at the National Herbarium and Royal Botanic Gardens, F.J. Raye. The story I have heard is that when staff were moving, trenches were dug to burn unwanted papers ­ including those of Mueller. The fires were said to have burned for days. It is difficult to comprehend such an act, and if it did happen it must surely go down in our history as one of the most wanton destructions of historic records. Further research is needed into the matter.

The Mueller project has access to about 10,000 Mueller letters. Just what proportion this represents of the original total of Mueller letters is not easy to determine. In his letter to Fischer­Benzon, Mueller claimed that departmental registers had already recorded 100,000 letters in his handwriting by the year 1881. To that total needs to be added the number of letters which Mueller received up to that time, his inward and outward correspondence for the subsequent 15 years before his death (during which time he wrote more letters than ever before), and his life's private correspondence. The final totals hardly seem conceivable - several hundreds of thousands. Perhaps we need look no further for an explanation of Potter's failure to write Mueller's biography. Did he have time before his own death even to read Mueller's letters?

Two substantial biographies of Mueller have been written since these depradations on his papers ­ Margaret Willis's By Their Fruits (1949), and Edward Kynaston's A Man on Edge (1982). Both authors faced the problem of trying to recover surviving information about Mueller which is now scattered around the world. The historian, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, called Willis's biography an unpretentious, pithy work. I would agree although I also find Willis too uncritical of Mueller. Fitzpatrick thought less of Kynaston's biography, which she found too speculative, and too banal in its speculations.13 Again I would agree, but must also note that the accessibility of Kynaston's style has introduced many readers to Mueller. I do not believe that either biography can be called a scientific biography. Certainly they both outline Mueller's scientific career and achievements, but they make no attempt to identify the theoretical underpinnings of his work, or to evaluate the contributions which he made to science.

Mueller is one of those individuals who was more famous in his own time than he is now. Fischer­Benzon, in the few lines he included about Mueller in the Flora of Schleswig­Holstein, took his life only up to his emigration to Australia saying: 'His later fate is too well known to elaborate it here.' Part of the reason for the diminution of Mueller's memory must be the lack of an adequate biography.

Despite Willis and Kynaston's research the Mueller project still faces a huge task in recovering Mueller's letters from around the world. We have tackled this problem as a team, dividing up the world like the Popes of old. Important recoveries have been made overseas, such as Mueller's correspondence with German geographer Petermann, and locally, such as the letters which escaped burning in the 1930s at the National Herbarium because they were inserted with herbarium specimens. The resulting manuscripts still constitute a huge volume of material to come to terms with. Ten thousand letters is a great many letters. One unanswered question in this regard is ­ because we have so much material must Mueller's biography be correspondingly huge? Finally, if the Mueller project is going to produce a scientific biography, it must also match Mueller's expertise in not only botany, but also pharmacy, horticulture, forestry, agriculture, zoology, geography and so on. Our solution to this problem is once again through team work. In addition to having two researchers, and four editors, the Mueller project also has an advisory board of variously skilled individuals.

The project's short term aim is to have a volume ready for publication by 1995. It will be introduced by a biographical essay covering the period of this slice of Mueller's correspondence ­ that, is up to his appointment as Director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens in August 1857. It will be a rich introduction to the successive volumes, covering many themes which dominated Mueller's life, and hopefully its readers will then share with its compilers a rediscovery of Mueller's significance in the history of science in Australia.


1 P. Prahl, Kritsche Flora der Provinz Schleswig-Holstein, 1890.

2 Letter, 16 December 1881, Mueller to Rudolf von Fischer-Benzon. Landesbibliothek, Kiel, West Germany. A copy is held by the 'Correspondence of Ferdinand von Mueller' project.

3 VPRS 7591/P2, Public Record Office, Laverton, Victoria, Australia. A copy is held by the 'Correspondence of Ferdinand von Mueller' project.

4 S. Maroske, H. Cohn & D. Sinkora, 'Ferdinand von Mueller's Library', The Botanic Magazine, Melbourne, 1990, pp. 17-23.

5 ML DOC 2514, Letter, W. Potter to J.R. Deas, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

6 ML MSS 2117/1, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

7 C. Daley, 'Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, KCMG, MD, FRS, Botanist Explorer and Geographer', Victorian Historical Magazine, vol. 10, 1924, pp. 23­32, 34-75.

8 Letter, 9 December 1929, Charles Daley to Lady Mary Spencer. Private hands. A copy is held by the 'Correspondence of Ferdinand von Mueller' project.

9 C. Daley, 'History of Flora Australiensis', Victorian Naturalist, vol. 44, 1927-8, pp. 63-9, 91-100, 127-38, 153-65, 183-7, 213-21, 248-56, 271-8.

10 Letter 26 April 1950, Henrietta Sinclair to C. A. McCallum, Public Library of Victoria. Private hands. A copy is held by the 'Correspondence of Ferdinand von Mueller' project.

11 ML MSS 21 1 7/1, Mitchell Library.

12 ML MSS 273/3, vol. 1, p. 89, Mitchell Library.

13 Historical Studies, vol. 20, no. 78, April 1982, pp. 154­6.

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