The publication of new letters on this site is ongoing. At its launch, over 11,200 letters were included, with over 3,000 items still to be processed. Letters are added to the site as they are completed. Editing letters can illuminate others already published, thus published letters are subject to change, especially in cross-reference notes. Occasionally, a newly edited letter leads to a better understanding of a letter previously edited, also resulting in changes. Accordingly, the date of access should always be stated when citing a letter.

Manuscript or typescript letters (including telegrams and fragments of letters) between Mueller and his correspondents are included, as are those between third parties that contain important information and contemporary views of issues. Where Mueller letters not otherwise found have been quoted in correspondence between third parties, the quoted part is included as a numbered item in the corpus. These items are published in a standard format (see Editorial Practice).

Published letters not otherwise found are indicated if they purport to be Mueller’s text, including those where only fragments of letters have been published. Some were explicitly intended by Mueller to be disseminated; others may have been private and published without his consent.

Items not in letter form, including prize certificates, society membership diplomas and tabulated returns to government, are treated as letters.

Blind letters are also given. These are described in the location note as ‘letter not found’ and may be from newspapers or other publications where Mueller items have been paraphrased or alluded to, or where they are known only from an entry in government or other file registers. No separate entry has been made for letters mentioned in other letters that have not themselves been found. They are noted as ‘letter not found’. Around thirty percent of files that are not registered entry files contain that phrase at least once.

A small number of Related documents, currently all manuscripts, are included.

Specimen labels with specimens supplied by Mueller’s collectors are not included. Obvious letters filed with a specimen are included.

Survival rate This body of work is far from a complete record of all letters that Mueller wrote or received. Only some of over 5,000 private letters subject to legal action between Mueller’s executors and his surviving sister and nephews and nieces and ordered to be placed at their disposal have been found1.

Some of these may have been the ‘parcel of letters [that] had been handed in to the National Herbarium … from the gentleman who had contemplated publishing, and taken the preliminary steps for writing, a biography of Baron von Mueller’ and which contained letters from both William and Joseph Hooker and George Bentham covering a period of forty years (Daley (1927–28), part 1, p. 63). Although not named in the article, the date given, 1909, indicates that the ‘gentleman’ was Charles Topp. Doris Sinkora later found another parcel of Mueller’s letters behind boxes of specimens on a shelf just below the ceiling in the National Herbarium. The parcel, wrapped in brown paper with a note, ‘Professor Lucas desires these’, written by Mueller’s long-time assistant Charles French, contained correspondence about algae including letters and lists with identifications from J. G. Agardh of Lund, letters from John Bracebridge Wilson, Headmaster of Geelong Grammar School, an enthusiastic naturalist who dredged for algae and sponges during the school’s annual summer holidays, and letters from various German algologists. The parcel was evidently prepared for the naturalist A.H.S. Lucas (1853–1936), a specialist on algae, in Melbourne from 1883, but in Sydney from 1892.

According to Mueller’s niece Henrietta Sinclair, one of Mueller’s executors, Alexander Buettner, subsequently decided to retire from medical practice and write Mueller’s biography himself. Presumably after the judge in the court case had required the transfer of papers to the family on 2 November 1910, Buettner notified her and Clara Doughty of his intentions through the family’s solicitors and asked for Mueller’s papers to be handed over. Not knowing what else to do, she and Doughty agreed2. Sinclair and Doughty managed, however, to retain family letters, diplomas and ‘odds and ends’ in their own hands. Buettner died on 13 November 1914 with no sign of a biography. Sinclair asserted that his death was not made known to her and Clara Doughty, and that they learnt only later that some of Mueller’s letters that had been in his possession ‘were tied in bundles and sold at auction and others burnt’3. It may have been at this auction that the nurseryman Cheeseman reportedly bought some bundles of Mueller’s ’private letters’ and burnt them forthwith to stop their public circulation4. In any event, large quantities of the material present at the time of the conclusion of the court case in 1910 have disappeared.

The loss of letters is not all attributable to occurrences of this nature. Following Mueller’s death, it was common for correspondents to mention the frequency of letters they received. For example, Peter MacOwan told the Gardeners’ Chronicle (16 January 1897, p. 44) that their correspondence had persisted for 25 years, yet Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (RBGV) holdings contain no letters from MacOwan and only one from Mueller to him. Similarly, his anonymous obituarist in the Gardeners Chronicle (almost certainly the editor Maxwell Masters) wrote in the issue of 17 October 1896, p. 466 ‘for nearly forty years the present writer has been in correspondence with him [Mueller] … and of later years hardly anything has happened with such regularity as the receipt on every Monday morning of one or more communications of some kind … Two or three such communications were received weekly on the average, but the number has occasionally mounted up to as many as seven or even nine!’ Despite this apparent volume of correspondence, RBGV has only one letter to Masters, and none from him.

Mueller’s letter registers have not survived. Based on his own estimates of his official letters at 5,000 or 6,000 letters per year in later years (letter to Thomas Wilson, 29 September 1893; letter to Eugene Hilgard, 13 July 1894, and 2,000 annually in the 1850s (Mueller to William Hooker, 9 January 1858), the editors estimate Mueller wrote around 150,000 letters and will have received a like number. The number of letters known thus represents about 5 percent of those that were created.

Given the fate of letters after Mueller’s death, it is not surprising that the surviving correspondence is asymmetrical, with letters to Mueller comprising under half the number of those from him. There are undoubted biases in their survival. RBGV has very few letters written by Mueller in response to enquiries from farmers and others seeking advice. We know that many that would have been in Europe were lost during the wars of the 20th Century, especially in France in WW I and II, and in Germany in WW II, where letters sent to Berlin and kept at the Botanic Gardens will have been lost, as will have those sent to his European contact and agent, Otto Sonder, in Hamburg. In London, most of the Zoological Society of London correspondence files were dispersed or destroyed by the Society at the beginning of the Second World War5.

At the National Herbarium of Victoria, the great majority of the letters from Mueller’s collectors have been found with specimen folders, but these approximately 750 letters must represent a fraction of those sent by such prolific collectors as John Dallachy (nearly 7,000 specimens from Queensland,) or Anthony Persieh (2,600, North Queensland,) with only six letters from each of them found. Very few personal family letters survive. About one third of the letters, or blind letters based on register entries, are from the Public Record Office of Victoria, probably a very high proportion of those exchanged. Despite the low overall survival rate, the letters include examples of most contexts in which letters would have been exchanged, but analyses of relative importance of each context should certainly not be based on the numbers of letters in this corpus.

1 See letter M1909.01.29, Charles Topp to Hermann and Alexander Büttner, 29 January 1909, and notes thereto. …

2 Quoted by C. Daley, unpublished biography of Mueller, Charles Daley papers, MS1946, no. 440, National Library of Australia, Canberra, p. 194.

3 There was an auction of Büttner’s house and effects on 15 December 1914 (Argus (Melbourne), 12 December 1914, p. 2.

4 H. Sinclair to C.A. McCallum, 3 April 1950, MS M105, Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne; Daley, unpublished biography of Mueller, p. 195.

5 Zuckerman (1976), p. 7. A few items of correspondence have been retrieved; these do not include correspondence with Mueller (Michael Palmer, ZSL, e-mail to A. M. Lucas, 29 September 2011).