Darwin’s theory of evolution is still 40 years away. But naturalists are swarming over the globe to explore its flora and fauna. Some return with huge collections – and become celebrities. One such was Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, plants were at the center of biological science. Many renowned thinkers were fascinated by botany – including Goethe and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Indeed, the latter’s Lettres élémentaires sur la botanique was a bestseller in its day.
As a young man, von Martius, a native of Erlangen, also developed a passion for the subject. In 1817, at the age of 23 and already a qualified medical doctor, he snapped up the opportunity to take part in an expedition to Brazil.
He sailed on the vessel that took Archduchess Leopoldine, a daughter of the Austrian Emperor Francis II, to Brazil. (She had just married Dom Pedro I, who would become Emperor of Brazil in 1822.)
A close call on the Amazon
The voyage itself passed without incident, but the subsequent expedition into the interior ran into difficulties – and its two Bavarian members, Martius and his friend Johann Baptist von Spix, decided to strike out on their own. The two first focused on the region around Rio de Janeiro, before travelling up the coast to the mouth of the Amazon. The intrepid botanists then set off upriver by canoe. Martius ultimately reached the Araracora waterfalls on the Rio Japurá (Caquetá) in what is now Colombia, which were then deemed to be impassible. It was a classical botanical expedition, full of unforeseen dangers in unexplored and challenging terrain. Both explorers had to cope with tropical diseases and narrowly escaped drowning. They were out of touch with civilization for so long that the Bavarian Interior Minister made use of diplomatic channels to initiate inquiries as to their possible whereabouts.
But they survived the rigors and dangers of the journey and the voyage home, returning to Bavaria in 1820 – with a great deal of luggage. In the course of their travels, they collected 6500 plant specimens, as well as many species of mammals, birds, fish and insects. Spix died only a few years after their return from South America. Martius, on the other hand, had a great deal more time to devote to the study of the fruits of his expedition to Brazil. He had always been particularly fascinated by palm trees – a predilection that would earn him the nickname Vater der Palmen. His monumental Historia naturalis palmarum, completed in 1853, made him one of the best-known naturalists of his time. He died 150 years ago, on 15 December 1868.
Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius
From alpine edelweiss to tropical palms
Martius was appointed Professor of Botany at the LMU in 1826, when the University was moved from Landshut to Munich by royal command – and in 1835 he was also appointed Director of the Royal Herbarium and Botanic Garden. The close association between the new University and the Royal Collections was intentional. “The linkage of the two functions continues to pay dividends in terms of science. Bavarians have always had a knack for linking up scientific institutions in sensible and productive ways,” says LMU Professor Susanne Renner.
All 11 Directors of the Botanic Garden in Munich have been LMU botany professors – including Professor Renner, the present incumbent. When she contemplates the pressed and dried plants collected by Martius, her respect and enthusiasm for his achievements is palpable. From thousands of drawers filled with these herbarium specimens, she selects one very special example: a species of edelweiss which Martius collected in his youth. The two combined herbaria in Munich – one formally belonging to the university, the other to the Bavarian Natural History Collections – together comprise 3.4 million specimens and are in the Top 20 of the world’s largest plant collections.
Assiduous collector and organizational genius
As a researcher, Martius was not a conceptual thinker. “He was an assiduous and persistent collector, an organizational genius, and he must have been a charismatic personality,” Renner says. He was an inveterate letter-writer and collector of information, and what he learned he set down in no less than 28 volumes – in his Flora Brasiliensis. Even today – in the age of the Internet – complete descriptions of floral provinces are few and far between. “His work still serves as the basis of our knowledge of the flora of South America,” says Renner, and this is why Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius is recognized as one of Germany’s greatest botanists and a giant among the naturalists of his time. “If Alexander von Humboldt fits into this category, then Martius does too,” says Renner. At all events, he is “the Bavarian Humboldt”.