Ferdinand von Mueller

Baron Sir Ferdinand Jacob Heinrich von Mueller, KCMG (German: Müller) (30 June 1825 – 10 October 1896) was a German-Australian physician, geographer, and most notably, a botanist. He was appointed government botanist for the then colony of Victoria by Governor Charles La Trobe in 1853, and later director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. He also founded the National Herbarium of Victoria. He named many Australian plants.

Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller
Ferdinand von Mueller
Born(1825-06-30)30 June 1825
Died10 October 1896(1896-10-10) (aged 71)
CitizenshipNaturalised British Subject in South Australia and Victoria
AwardsClarke Medal (1883)
Royal Medal (1888)
Scientific career
Fieldsbotany, medicine, geography
Author abbrev. (botany)F.Muell.

Early life

Mueller was born at Rostock, in the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. After the early death of his parents, Frederick and Louisa, his grandparents gave him a good education in Tönning, Schleswig. Apprenticed to a chemist at the age of 15, he passed his pharmaceutical examinations and studied botany under Professor Ernst Ferdinand Nolte (1791–1875) at Kiel University. In 1847, he received his degree of Doctor of Philosophy from Kiel for a thesis on the plants of the southern regions of Schleswig.[1]

Mueller's sister Bertha had been advised to seek a warmer climate for her health, and the great botanist Ludwig Preiss, who had recently returned from Perth, recommended Australia,[2] so in 1847, Mueller and his two surviving sisters sailed from Bremen. While still on the ship, he reportedly fished his first plants out of the water to analyse them.

He arrived at Adelaide on 18 December 1847 and found employment as a chemist with Moritz J. Heuzenroeder, in Rundle Street. He was an inveterate explorer, walking alone to Mount Arden and Mount Brown during his first year. Shortly afterwards, he obtained 20 acres (81,000 m2) of land not far from Adelaide in the Bugle Ranges, and had a cottage built there. He moved there with his sister Clara, intending to start a farm, but after a few months, he returned to his former employment.[2]

Mueller thought to open a chemist's shop in the gold diggings, so in 1851, he moved to Melbourne, capital of the new colony of Victoria.[2] He had contributed a few papers on botanical subjects to German periodicals, and in 1852, sent a paper to the Linnean Society of London on "The Flora of South Australia", thus beginning to be well known in botanical circles.

Victorian Government Botanist

Mueller was appointed government botanist for Victoria by Governor Charles La Trobe in 1853, a post that was newly created for him. He examined its flora, especially the Alpine vegetation of Australia, which was previously unknown. He explored the Buffalo Ranges, then went to the upper reaches of the Goulburn River and across Gippsland to the coast. The neighbourhoods of Port Albert and Wilsons Promontory were explored, and the journey of some 1,500 miles (2,400 km) was completed along the coast to Melbourne.

In the same year, he established the National Herbarium of Victoria, which can still be visited today. It has many plants from Australia and abroad, many of which were collected by Mueller. Also, his large private library was transferred to the government of Victoria in 1865 and is incorporated into the library of the herbarium in Melbourne.[3]

Then, as a phytographic naturalist, he joined the expedition sent out under Augustus Gregory by the Duke of Newcastle, Secretary of State for the colonies. He explored the Victoria River and other portions of North Australia, was one of the four who reached Termination Lake in 1856, and accompanied Gregory's expedition overland to Moreton Bay. Mueller, for his part, found nearly 800 species in Australia new to science. He published in this year his Definitions of Rare or Hitherto Undescribed Australian Plants.

From 1854 to 1872, Mueller was a member of the Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science, which later became the Philosophical Institute of Victoria. He was president of the Philosophical Institute in 1859 when it received a royal charter and became the Royal Society of Victoria. He was an active member of the society's "Exploration Committee" which established the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860. Mueller promoted the exploration of Australia, and as one of only two members of the Exploration Committee with any experience of exploration, he made several speeches to the society on the topic. He did not favour the selection of Burke as leader, but due to factionalism in the committee, he had little say in the establishment, provisioning, or composition of the exploration party.[4]

From 1857 to 1873, he was director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, and not only introduced many plants into Victoria, but also made the excellent qualities of the blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) known all over the world, and succeeded in introducing it into the south of Europe, North and South Africa, California, and the extratropical portions of South America.

Mueller was decorated by many foreign countries, including Germany, France, Spain, Denmark, and Portugal. He was appointed a fellow of the Royal Society in 1861, and knighted as Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1879. A list of his 'Orders, offices, affiliations and sundry honours' has been assembled.[5] Many of his decorations were received in return for supplying zoological specimens to royal museums.[6]

He was the benefactor of explorer Ernest Giles, the discoverer of Lake Amadeus and Kata Tjuta. Giles had originally wanted to name these Lake Mueller and Mt Ferdinand,[7] but Mueller prevailed upon Giles to name them Lake Amadeus, after King Amadeus of Spain, and Mt Olga, after Queen Olga of Württemberg; both kings had granted him honours. In 1871, King Karl of Württemberg gave him the hereditary title of Freiherr, to mark his distinction in 'natural sciences generally and in particular for the natural history collections and institutions of Our Kingdom'[8] He was then known as Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller.[9]

By 1873, influential Melburnians were critical of Mueller's scientific and educational approach with the Royal Botanic Gardens. Development of the gardens with an eye to aesthetics was sought. Mueller was dismissed from his position as director of the Botanic Gardens on 31 May 1873.[10] He had done much to develop the gardens with the scarce resources at hand. Though his pay was not affected and he still continued as the government botanist, he never lost his sense of grievance over losing the position.

In April 1873, Mueller had created the genus Guilfoylia and described William Guilfoyle as "distinguished as a collector [who] evidenced great ardour" and held high hopes for his collecting ability. Mueller's opinion changed when Guilfoyle was appointed to take his place as director of the Botanic Gardens in July 1873. He accused Guilfoyle of being a "nurseryman [with] no claims to scientific knowledge whatever" and of getting the job due to being related to the wife of the responsible minister. Mueller subsequently abolished Guilfoylia as part of the genus of Cadellia in his botanical census of 1882. Guilfoyle went on to landscape the gardens in an aesthetic and pleasing style welcomed by most Melburnians.[11]

In 1857, Mueller applied for and was granted the degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of Rostock;[12] in 1883, he was awarded the Clarke Medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales.

He published 11 volumes of Fragmenta phytographica Australiae (1862–1881), two volumes of the Plants of Victoria (1860–1865), and other books on the Eucalyptus, Myoporaceae, Acacia, and Salsolaceae, all profusely illustrated. He also co-operated in the production of George Bentham's Flora Australiensis.[13] He described many novel plant species sent by botanists from other parts of Australia, notably Maurice William Holtze from the Northern Territory, and encouraged settlers to send plants to him. Many women contributed to his collections, including Louisa Atkinson and Sarah Brooks.[14] He took a leading part in promoting Australian exploration, especially the Burke and Wills expedition, which was the first to cross the continent, and in the various attempts to unravel the mystery which attended the fate of his fellow countryman Ludwig Leichhardt (1813–1848).

Mueller died in Melbourne and is buried in the St Kilda Cemetery. He was survived by his sister, Mrs. Clara Wehl, of Millicent, South Australia. His other sister, Mrs. Bertha Doughty of near Penola predeceased him. He never married.[2]

Mueller was a theist who rejected Darwinism, but is said by historians to have misunderstood key aspects of Charles Darwin's theory. Despite his differences he remained on friendly terms with Darwin.[15]


The Mueller Medal has been awarded since 1904 by the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science to "a scientist who is the author of important contributions to anthropological, botanical, geological or zoological science, preferably with special reference to Australia".[16]

Places named after Mueller

A number of geographical features were named after Mueller: the Mueller Ranges (Western Australia), Muellers Range (Queensland), Mount Mueller (in WA, Northern Territory, Tasmania and Victoria) and Mount von Mueller (WA), Muellers Peak (New South Wales), the Mueller River (Vic), Muellers Creek (South Australia) and Mueller Creek (NT), Lake Mueller(Qld), and Mueller hut near the Mueller Glacier in New Zealand. Mueller Park, Subiaco (WA) is also named after him.

A Victorian Railways diesel-electric locomotive, S311, is named after Mueller.

Artworks based on Mueller

  • Love, Death, Music and Plants, a music theatre work based on scenes from the life of Mueller, was written by Brian Lipson (writer) and Matthew Hindson (composer), and had a two-week season at the Mueller Hall, National Herbarium of Victoria, 18–30 November 2003.[17]
  • A bust of Mueller by Marc Clark is located outside the National Herbarium of Victoria.[18]

Plants named after Mueller

Species named to honour Mueller typically end in muelleri, muellerina or muelleriana. Examples include the genus, Muellerina (Loranthaceae), the taxa Callitris muelleri, Persoonia muelleri, and Verticordia muelleriana, Allocasuarina muelleriana and Eucalyptus muelleriana, and Terminalia ferdinandiana.[19]

Animals named after Mueller

A species of Australian lizard, Lerista muelleri, is named in his honour,[20] as well as a number of fish and invertebrates.[21]

See also


  1. Chisholm, A. H., Ferdinand von Mueller, Great Australians, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1962
  2. Home, R.W. (ed), Australian Science in the Making: A Bicentennial History (1990) ISBN 0-521-39640-9
  3. Home, R.W. et al. (eds) Regardfully yours: selected correspondence of Ferdinand von Mueller.3 vols Peter Lang, Berne. 1998–2006
  4. Kynaston, Edward, A Man on Edge: A life of Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, Allen Lane, London; Ringwood, 1981
  5. Mueller, Dr Ferdinand von, 1858. An historical review of the explorations of Australia. Melbourne: Philosophical Institute.
  6. Mueller, Dr Ferdinand von, 1863. "Enumeration of the plants collected by Dr J Murray during Mr A Howitt's Expedition into Central Australia in the year 1862". Annual Report of the Government Botanist, p. 16–18.
  7. Mueller, Dr Ferdinand von, 1865. "On the systematic position of the Nardoo plant and the physiological characteristics of its fruit". Transactions and proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria: During the years 1861 to 1864, pp 137–147.
  8. Voigt, Johannes H., Die Erforschung Australiens: Der Briefwechsel zwischen August Petermann and Ferdinand von Mueller 1861–1878, Justus Perthes Verlag, Gotha, 1996

Additional publications online


  1. Doctoral certificate, University of Kiel, 2 August 1847, reproduced in Home et al. Vol. 1, p 99.
  2. Interview with F E H W Krichauff South Australian Register 12 October 1896 p.7 accessed 20 August 2011
  3. Victoria,1864– 5, Parliamentary Papers, No, 72: "Annual Report of the Government Botanist and Director of the Botanic Garden.
  4. Lost Explorers by Ed Wright Murdock Books 2008 ISBN 978-1-74196-139-3
  5. Home et al., vol 3, pp. 838 – 858.
  6. Lucas, A M (2013) Specimens and the Currency of Honour: the Museum Trade of Ferdinand von Mueller, Historical Records of Australian Science, 24:15–39
  7. http://www.environment.gov.au/parks/uluru/management/history/european-contact.html
  8. Letters patent by Karl I, 6 July 1871, reproduced and translated in Home et al., vol 2, pp 580 – 582
  9. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 19 July 2005. Retrieved 31 October 2005.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  10. Helen M Cohn and Sara Maroske ‘Relief from duties of minor importance: the removal of Baron von Mueller from the directorship of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens’, Victorian Historical Journal, 67, (1996) pp. 103–127
  11. Weston Bate, 'Perceptions of Melbourne's "Pride and glory"', Victorian Historical Journal, vol 67, 4 – 16, 1996
  12. Degree certificate transcribed and translated in Home et al, vol 1, pp 334–336;
  13. Lucas, A. M. Assistance at a distance: George Bentham, Ferdinand von Mueller and the production of Flora australiensis. Archives of natural history 30 (2): 255–281. 2003
  14. Maroske, S. and Vaughan, A. (2014). Ferdinand Mueller’s female plant collectors: a biographical register. Muelleria, 32: 92–172
  15. Lucas, A. M. (2010). Ferdinand von Mueller's interactions with Charles Darwin and his response to Darwinism. Archives of Natural History 37: 102–130.
  16. ANZAAS > Mueller Medal Recipients (1904–2005) archive.is Retrieved 9 July 2017,
  17. "Garden genius lauded in song - www.theage.com.au". www.theage.com.au. 14 November 2003.
  18. Centre, The University of Melbourne eScholarship Research. "Image - Bust of Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, sculpted by Marc Clark, located outside the Nation Herbarium of Victoria. - Encyclopedia of Australian Science". www.eoas.info. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
  19. Exell, A.W. (1935). Journal of Botany, British and Foreign (PDF). 73: 263 http://archive.bsbi.org.uk/Journal_of_Botany_1935.pdf. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  20. Beolens B, Watkins M, Grayson M (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Mueller, F.J.H.", p. 184).
  21. A. M. Lucas (2013) Zoological eponyms honouring the botanist, Ferdinand von Mueller, Archives of Natural History, 40:263–269,
  22. IPNI.  F.Muell.
Preceded by
James Dwight Dana
Clarke Medal
Succeeded by
Alfred Richard Cecil Selwyn
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