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
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
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,
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,
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
11 ML MSS 21 1 7/1, Mitchell
12 ML MSS 273/3, vol. 1, p.
89, Mitchell Library.
13 Historical Studies,
vol. 20, no. 78, April 1982, pp. 1546.