Notes on life and work

When the young German botanist Ferdinand Müller arrived in Australia shortly before Christmas 1847, he can scarcely have dreamed of the illustrious career that lay ahead of him, or of the shattering blows he would suffer along the way. Generally known by the Anglicised spelling of his name, Mueller, which he adopted after deciding to stay in Australia, he became famous as one of the first European scientists to explore and document parts of alpine Victoria1, northern and western Australia, and later as a promoter of scientific exploration expeditions in Australia, New Guinea and Antarctica. As Victoria’s Government Botanist from 1853 until his death in 1896 and as first Director of Melbourne’s renowned Botanic Garden, 1857–1873, he made fundamental contributions to the scientific knowledge of Australia’s plants. His immense output of scientific work2 led to his becoming generally recognised as the ultimate authority on the subject not just in Victoria but throughout the then separate Australian colonies—a national authority before the nation ever came into existence. He was without question Australia’s leading scientist of the nineteenth century. His scientific eminence was also recognised internationally, as his election to a vast number of scientific societies around the world attests3, including the prestigious Royal Society of London, the Académie des Sciences in Paris, the German national scientific academy (generally known as the Leopoldina) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1888, the Royal Society of London bestowed on him one of the two Royal Medals it awarded each year ‘for the two most important contributions to the advancement of Natural Knowledge, published originally in Her Majesty’s Dominions’ during the preceding ten years: no other Australian received one until after the Second World War. Civil honours were also showered upon him, including no fewer than twenty-two different knighthoods—the granting of the Knight’s Cross, 1st Class of the Order of the Crown of Württemberg in 1867 adding “von” to his name—and, in 1871, a hereditary barony (Freiherr) also bestowed by the King of Württemberg.

Plain ‘Ferdinand Müller’ thus ended his days as a member of the nobility, as ‘Baron Ferdinand von Mueller’. He must surely have received more civil honours than any other Australian, and possibly more than any commoner anywhere. His awards gave him considerable social status, making him (in Vance Palmer’s words) ‘a great functionary—the second citizen of Victoria, while governors came and went’. When he gave a public address, the Governor was usually in the chair. His funeral was a major public occasion, with thousands of his fellow citizens lining the route to the cemetery to watch his coffin pass by. Afterwards two separate public appeals were conducted to memorialise him, one leading to the construction of a large monument on his grave, the other endowing the Mueller Medal, awarded regularly for a century thereafter by the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (later ANZAAS) for outstanding contributions to natural science, ‘preference always given to work having special reference to Australasia’.

As well as publishing prodigiously, Mueller maintained a vast correspondence with all manner of people throughout Australia, and the world. Much of this has since been lost4, but more than enough has survived to provide a window into Mueller’s world, shedding new light not only on his own life and work, and on how he managed to achieve international recognition despite his isolation from his scientific peers, but more widely on intellectual and social life in nineteenth-century Australia, on the history of Australia more generally, and on the history of the sciences to which he contributed so notably.

Timeline showing some key dates in Mueller’s career.

1825 June 30 Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich Müller born in Rostock, Mecklenburg.
1835 January 5 Death of Ferdinand’s father, Friedrich Müller.
1840 March 15 Death of Ferdinand’s mother, Louise Müller, née Mertens.
March Commences apprenticeship at Einhorn Apotheke, Husum.
1845 February 2 Death of Ferdinand’s sister Iwanne.
1846 May 12 Matriculates at University of Kiel.
1847 July 21 Sails for Australia with his surviving sisters, Bertha and Clara.
August 2 PhD degree awarded by University of Kiel.
December 15 Arrives in Adelaide.
1849 August 9 Naturalised in South Australia, changes spelling of name to Mueller.
1851 October Expedition to Lake Torrens and Flinders Ranges.
1852 August Moves to Victoria.
1853 January 26 Appointed Victoria’s first Government Botanist.
1855 July Departs with Augustus Gregory’s North Australian Exploring Expedition for northern Australia.
1857 May 27 Returns to Melbourne and resumes appointment as Government Botanist.
August 13 Appointed the first Director of Melbourne Botanic Garden.
1858 March First fascicle of Fragmenta phytographiae Australiae published.
1861 June 6 1861 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London.
September 7 Death of Ferdinand’s sister Bertha.
1863 May 30 First volume of Flora australiensis published.
1867 December 20 Granted personal nobility (i.e. ‘von’) by King of Württemberg.
1871 July 6 Granted hereditary barony (‘Freiherr’) by King of Württemberg.
1873 July 1 Position of Director of Melbourne Botanic Garden abolished.
1876 December First edition of Mueller’s Select plants published.
1878 May 23–30 Seventh and final volume of Flora australiensis published.
1879 May 24 Knighted KCMG.
1890 January President of Second Congress of Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science.
1895 July 1 Elected Corresponding Member of French Academy of Sciences.
1896 October 10 Dies after suffering stroke.

1 Gillbank (2002); Home (2014).

2 See Mueller’s publications on this website.

3 See Honours, awards and memberships on this website.

4 See under ‘survival rate’ in Scope on this website.

5 See Voigt and Sinkora (1996) for early life.