20 October 2015

Ferdinand von Mueller and his many lady botanists

Ferdinand (later Von) Mueller (1825-96) was born in Germany where he trained as a pharmacist. This was a career that required a profess­ional knowledge of botany, and with his botany PhD thesis safely in hand, the young man’s career started well.

Tragically TB claimed five of his siblings and then his father. So many of his immediate family had died from TB, Ferdinand and his two surviving sisters chose to move to cleaner, warmer Adelaide in 1847. However the fear of TB still haunted Ferdinand for the rest of his life.

Mueller was soon attracted to the Victorian goldfields where he intended to set up a pharmacy, but by 1853 he had been appointed as the first Government Botanist of Victoria. His timing was perfect. Victoria had became a separate, self-governing colony in 1851. And as a result of the Gold Rushes, the population of Victoria increased rapidly.

 Ferdinand von Mueller with his honours and awards

Victoria’s Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe selected the Melbourne site for the Royal Botanic Gardens from marshland. In 1857 Mueller was appoint­ed the first Dir­ector of the Gardens, with the goal of developing a centre for botan­ical science, learning and recreation. Indig­en­ous plants, regular fetes and concerts in the Royal Botanic Gardens gave Melbournians a very pleasant life.

It was time for me to read Collecting Ladies: Ferdinand von Mueller and Women Botanical Illustrators, written by Penny Olsen and published by the National Library of Australia, 2013. Olsen focused on two main themes: a] the sad personal life but sparkling profess­ional life of botanist Ferdinand Mueller and b] the lives and botanical art of 14 of Mueller’s women collectors: Louisa Meredith, Euphemia Henderson, Fanny Charsley, Anna Walker, Harriet and Helena Scott, Louisa Atkinson, Fanny De Mole, Margaret Forrest, Ellis Rowan, Rosa Fiveash, Gertrude Lovegrove, Flora Martin and Marie Wehl.

With Mueller’s support, these women produced some of the most beautiful Australia books and botanical art in the C19th. Nonetheless I could only review one of these women, and I had already looked at Ellis Rowan in some detail, so I chose Euphemia Henderson.

”Collecting Ladies” is a slightly creepy title so I was cautious about buying the book. But it turned out to be beautifully published with fine botanical art work, excellent references to the letters being cited and a useful Index. Most of the art works are in the National Library of Australia archives.

Euphemia Henderson

Here is one announcement that Mueller wrote to the editor of The Perth Inquirer in 1870. “Dear Sir, permit me to call the ladies’ attention through your widely circulated journal to the very inter­esting employment of preserving flowers and seaweed. Those who are at all disposed to amuse themselves at their leisure will find the best time for collecting seaweed is to take a walk on the beach.. during the winter months. To use Dr Mueller’s own words, any contributions will tend to augment the material for good work in which he is engaged”. Von Mueller was not modest.

The Brisbane Courier (1872) was also draughted into promoting the opportunity to contribute to “a great national work” currently in preparation… “to which every individual who has the opportunity, ought to contribute. Every contribution would be acknowledged and the donor’s name will become part and parcel of his grand undertaking?

Von Mueller worked with 3,000 collectors, including many men. So were his advertisments sexist? Yes! Here was an unmarried, male European scientist, searching for ladies from all the colonies in Australia who would collect plants and send them to him for his grand under­taking. [He was given the noble “von” title in 1867]. Women’s natural inclinations, he believed, were fixed. “The world of plants … is particularly fitted, to attract the attention of the fair sex … who admire the beauties of nature, and attend them with womanly care and anxiety”. And since women could not get paid work in their chosen profession, they had leisure time for doing unpaid work for him. “What trouble would it be to collect and preserve flowers, and enclose in an envelope to their destination? How many ladies might devote a few leisure hours to this pursuit?”

It makes sense that women in isolated parts of this wide, brown continent would crave intellectual society. He offered them a stim­ulating pastime, and although he may not have paid the women for their labour, he did promise to acknowledge their con­trib­ution. And he was an amazing correspondent. 12,000 of his letters to and from his women collectors survived.

Euphemia Henderson (1820-1907) arrived in Australia from London in 1853 with her architect-artist brother John Henderson. Euphemia’s brother in law, John McHaffie, frequent­ly visited Melbourne from his property in Phillip Island where McHaffie, Muel­ler, John Henderson and Dr David Thomas loved plants and botanical art, and loved socialising together.

Phillip Island was where some meetings of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria (i.e a society to enrich the fauna in new European colonies) were held. In 1863, von Mueller met Euphemia in Phillip Island, fell deeply in love with her and proposed marriage. He was 38 and she was 42. By April 1863 Mueller was introducing Euphemia to other people as his fiancée.

One of Euphemia Henderson's watercolours
Royal Botanic Gardens, Melboiurne

Many of Euphemia Henderson’s watercolours survive and are reproduced in the book (unfortunately without measurements or dates). Her paintings were not as minutely detailed as Anna Walker’s, nor as lush as Margaret Forrest’s. But I am assuming the women artists were not in competition with each other, so it did not matter.

But in the end, it all ended in tears. By August 1863 Mueller realised that Euphemia was too old to have babies. He sent his friend Dr David Thomas to Phillip Island to break the news to the devastated fiancée. Mueller chased other women artists and became engaged a few more times, but he never actually got married.

By the end of the book I concluded that von Mueller wanted women to help in HIS ambition: to complete HIS collection of Australian Flora. The best we can say about the women's experience was that they enjoyed a lick and a taste of scientific pursuit.

Coll­­ecting Ladies was a fine analysis of Australia’s colourful botanic history; it told of the struggle of C19th women who had the talent and the will to make a cont­ribution to scholarship and to the national good. The women might not have been allowed to participate in university life or in scholarly conferences in the 1870s, but they could make a difference via von Mueller.


Student of History said...

Clever man but for goodness sake. Mueller sent another man to break off the engagement! Coward.

Hels said...


he really was a very clever botanist and made an enormous impact as Dir­ector of the Royal Botanic Gardens. We can still see the gardens as a centre for science and recreation today.

But Mueller could only deal with intelligent and single women by mail, it would seem. Thousands of them! When shove came to push in relationships with close personal contact, he failed every time.

Andrew said...

Mueller and our Botanic gardens was as much as I knew. Thanks for the fleshing out.

Hels said...


If you love botanical art in general and Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens in particular, it is well worth buying this book.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Most of the mounted herbarium specimens I have seen have been the work of women, so Dr. Mueller tapped into an important resource. This specimen gathering allowed Victorian women to graduate from busy decorative accomplishments to work of true scientific value, a step they were obviously ready for, and which paved the way for many women to enter scientific professions.

Hels said...


that is so true. It would have been very difficult for women to have pursued their interests professionally without Mueller's involvement. Amalie Dietrich, for example, had been an amateur assisting her naturalist husband. But eventually she was given a 10 year contract to collect natural history specimens for a private museum in Hamburg.

Unused to being treated as scientific equals, many women would have treasured his letters. The more successful collectors saw their names in his publications, in newspapers or enshrined in the name of a plant. Mueller identified the plants that women painted and provided letters of introduction to publishers and scientists.