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Sir Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller (1825–1896)

by Deirdre Morris

This article was published:

Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller (1825-1896), by John Botterill, c1867

Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller (1825-1896), by John Botterill, c1867

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H4146

Sir Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller (1825-1896), botanist, was born on 30 June 1825 in Rostock, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, only surviving son of Frederick Mueller, commissioner of customs, and his wife Louise, née Mertens. After his parents died Mueller was apprenticed to a pharmacist in Husum, Schleswig-Holstein, becoming an enthusiastic and knowledgable botanist. He attended the University of Kiel, 1845-47, where he completed his pharmacy qualification and was awarded a Ph.D. for a thesis surveying the flora of southern Schleswig. Concern about his sister’s health and perhaps his own persuaded him and his two surviving sisters to seek a warmer climate. They sailed from Bremen in the Hermann von Beckerath, arriving in Adelaide on 15 December 1847. Working occasionally as a pharmacist, he devoted most of his time to investigating the South Australian flora from Mount Gambier to the Flinders Ranges and Lake Torrens. He contributed papers to the Linnean Society, London, the German Linnea and newspapers in Adelaide on his findings. He tried farming in the Bugle Ranges with F. E. H. W. Krichauff but soon left because it interfered with his botanical work.

In 1852 Mueller went to Melbourne where Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe appointed him government botanist in 1853. With J. Dallachy he visited Mount Buffalo and the Ovens River where he reported indications of gold. Alone he went to Mount Buller to observe the alpine vegetation and spent several weeks around Port Albert and Wilson's Promontory before returning to Melbourne. He estimated that he had collected specimens of over half the indigenous vegetation of Victoria. He discovered species earlier claimed to be found only in Tasmania and added new genera to the flora of Australia. He reported on the possible medicinal value of some plants in the treatment of consumption, rheumatism and scurvy, and emphasized the commercial value of the acacia for its wood, tannin and gum, and the Australian manna for its saccharine content. On a second expedition he travelled via the Grampians to the Darling and Murray junction and thence to Albury, Omeo and the Buchan district with increasing hardship and danger in difficult and often unexplored regions, finally reaching the mouth of the Snowy River. He sent duplicate specimens of all species to Hooker, 'the plants being so much more useful in Kew than in Australia'.

In 1854 Mueller was appointed a commissioner for the Melbourne Exhibition and spent much time organizing an exposition. He was also active in both the Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science and the Philosophical Society of Victoria. In November he set off for the La Trobe and Avon River districts, where he predicted that the fertility of the soil would enable a large and prosperous population to settle. He climbed Mount Wellington, worked up the Dargo River, went to Mount Bogong and thence to Mount Kosciusko which he ascended on New Year's Day 1855. On his return to Melbourne he claimed that he had investigated 'almost completely the Alps flora of this continent'.

Mueller was appointed botanist to the North Australian Exploring Expedition under A. C. Gregory. In July 1855 the party left Sydney in the Monarch. They called at Moreton Bay before sailing to the mouth of the Victoria River. After tracing the Victoria River to its source and penetrating the Great Sandy Desert as far as Lake Gregory, they journeyed overland to Moreton Bay, travelling 5000 miles (8000 km) in sixteen months. Mueller had observed nearly 2000 species, of which some 800 were new to Australian botany. After his return to Melbourne, in August 1857 he was appointed director of the Botanical Gardens while still retaining his post as government botanist from which he had been given unpaid leave. He immediately arranged for the construction of an herbarium, contributed his own already extensive collection and began work on his Fragmenta Phytographiae Australiae which was published in twelve parts in 1858-82. As director of the gardens Mueller was responsible for exchanging seeds and plants with botanists throughout Australia as well as European and American herbaria.

The need for a comprehensive systematic survey of the botanical resources of Australia had long been recognized. Hooker and his son Joseph were convinced that the work could not be attempted without reference to the notes and specimens in the collections of Banks, Brown, Cunningham and others in Europe. As early as 1856 the Hookers had urged Mueller to return so that he could combine his wide field experience with the resources of these collections to produce a work on Australian flora, but Mueller insisted that the work be undertaken and completed in Australia. He had long hoped to write a flora of Australia and had compiled much material towards it, but with extreme reluctance he agreed to step down in favour of George Bentham whom he was to assist. Flora Australiensis appeared in seven volumes between 1863 and 1878. This comprehensive survey synthesized the isolated efforts of explorers and amateur and professional botanists throughout the colonies. It went close to Hooker's ideal of a work that 'should last, and … be a standard for all time'. In the preface of the first volume Bentham praised Mueller's zeal, talent and industry, but these words did little to sooth his professional pride and the wound never healed.

Among the first to take a scientific interest in Victorian forests, Mueller saw the dangers of indiscriminate clearing of land and advocated the establishment of local forest boards in an effort to provide timber for the future. He predicted the commercial value of Victorian timber in the manufacture of charcoal, gunpowder, tar, vinegar, spirits and potash. Specially recognizing the value of the eucalypts he had encouraged Joseph Bosisto in 1853 to distil eucalyptus oil on a commercial scale, and was responsible for exporting eucalyptus seeds to California, India, Algeria, Hong Kong and elsewhere, advocating their planting as a measure to combat malaria. Always sensible to the practical application of his scientific work, he brought great economic value to the settlers of Victoria, though he made no financial profit himself for the introduction of useful vegetation from other countries.

By 1868 Mueller was already answering criticism of his directorship of the gardens: 'no foundations exist … neither are statues erected … works of art we can call forth at pleasure, while time lost in forming the plantations cannot be regained'. Late in 1871 he lectured on the objects of a botanic garden but his efforts were in vain and in 1873 he was replaced by W. R. Guilfoyle. Mueller remained government botanist and suffered no pecuniary loss but felt the injustice of his dismissal from the gardens; he is reputed never to have entered them again.

An indefatigable worker, Mueller's correspondence regularly reached 3000 letters a year; he published over 800 papers and major works on Australian botany and lectured on subjects ranging from rust in cereals and the culture of tea in Victoria to an historical treatise On the Advancement of the Natural Sciences Trough Ministers of the Christian Church. He published The Natural Capabilities of the Colony of Victoria in 1875 and the first of many editions of his Select Extra-tropical Plants Readily Eligible for Industrial Culture or Naturalization in 1876. Next year at the request of the Western Australian government he surveyed its forests and coast as far north as Shark Bay. His report, published in London in 1879, advocated independent timber resources for all countries and recommended that Western Australia establish a forest administration. In that year he also issued the first part of The Native Plants of Victoria, a work which was never completed, and the first decades of his Eucalyptographia: A Descriptive Atlas of the Eucalypts of Australia and the Adjoining Islands, the tenth decade of which appeared in 1884. Part 1 of his Systematic Census of Australian Plants was published in 1882 and next year he was awarded the Clarke medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales. His two volumes of Key to the System of Victorian Plants appeared in 1886-88.

Mueller's widespread interests included the exploration of New Guinea and Antarctica. He argued that Australia should colonise these land masses and published his Descriptive notes on Papuan Plants in 1875-90. He served on the first Australian Antarctic Exploration Committee and devoted much time to it in his last years. He contributed to discussions on acclimatization and continued to introduce fauna and flora to Australia. He also encouraged searches for the remains of Ludwig Leichhardt's party and in 1865 organized the Ladies' Leichhardt Search Committee to raise funds.

Mueller had become president of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria in 1859 at the time it received its royal charter and became the Royal Society of Victoria. A fellow of the Royal Geographical, Linnean and Royal Societies in London, he was president of the (Royal) Geographical Society, Victorian Branch (1883-96). He was also active in the Melbourne Liedertafel and the Turn Verein, and supported the Lutheran Church and its mission in central Australia. In 1871 he was appointed a hereditary baron by the King of Württemberg, having been granted his `von' in 1867. He was made C.M.G. in 1869 and K.C.M.G. in 1879. He was awarded a royal medal of the Royal Society, London, in 1888 and won many European honours.

Soon after arriving in Adelaide Mueller had been naturalized. Though fiercely loyal to the British Crown, he was still a German and his European scientific contacts were of immense value to Australian science. He was largely responsible for the international recognition given to Australian scientific endeavour. Much of his work has never been superseded and is a measure of his lasting contribution to botany. He had little private life, his time, energy and finance being devoted to his work. He never married; though engaged to Euphemia Henderson in 1863 and Rebecca Nordt in 1865. Survived by a sister, he died on 10 October 1896 in South Yarra, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Lodewyckx, Die Deutschen in Australien (Stuttgart, 1932)
  • M. Willis, By Their Fruits (Syd, 1949)
  • C. Daley, ‘The history of Flora Australiensis’, Victorian Naturalist, 44 (1927-28)
  • J. H. Willis, ‘Botanical science in Victoria 100 years ago’, Royal Society of Victoria, Proceedings 73-74 (1961)
  • M. E. Hoare, ‘Learned societies in Australia: the foundation years in Victoria, 1850-1860’, Australian Academy of Science, Records, 1 (1967), no 2
  • L. A. Gilbert, Botanical Investigation of New South Wales 1811-1880 (Ph.D. thesis, University of New England, 1971).

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Citation details

Deirdre Morris, 'Mueller, Sir Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von (1825–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller (1825-1896), by John Botterill, c1867

Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller (1825-1896), by John Botterill, c1867

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H4146

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Baron von Mueller

30 June, 1825
Rostock, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany


10 October, 1896 (aged 71)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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