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ASBS Newsletter – Book Review

Regardfully Yours: Life & letters of Ferdinand von Mueller.
Selected Correspondence of Ferdinand von Mueller. Vol. 1 1840-1859.

Edited by R.W. Home, A.M. Lucas, Sara Maroske, D.M. Sinkora and J.H. Voigt.

(From ASBS Newsletter Number 99, June 1999)

Publ. Peter Lang, Bern, 1998, 842 pp. (No price given.)

The Contents are as follows: First a lovely water colour by T. Baines from the North Australian Exploring Expedition 1855-6, "attached to Mueller's letter to William Hooker 1857". The days of original landscapes with your letter seem to have passed.

Then a brief chronology of Mueller's life (11/2 pages) followed by an introduction of 40 pages, detailing Mueller's life, his early years in Germany, his brief stay in South Australia and his time in Victoria until 1859. The editors calculate on the basis of records that Mueller wrote perhaps 150,000 letters and his total correspondence may have been 300,000 letters. The volume includes an account of the dispersal loss or destruction of most of the correspondence after his long reign at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, surely one of the blackest pages on the history of science in Australia. "The fires, it is said, burned for days". This has left an enormous gap in the Mueller records. Several people seem to have been involved in this desecration, not only the executors but potential biographers as well. Further Mueller's important correspondence to Sonder was lost after the Second World War.

After that devastating account are a couple of pages on Mueller's epistolary style, substantial acknowledgements and a couple of pages on Editorial conventions which are essential reading.

Then follow 181 letters to and from Mueller up to 1859. Those in German are followed by a translation into English. These letters have been culled from survivors out of the hands of Victorian iconoclasts with Kew an important contributor.

It is a selected contribution, 14 out of 52 items relevant to his period in Germany were selected, 12 out of 31 items from his period in South Australia, 30 out of 115 items for the period to 1855, 13 out of 27 for the period to 1857, and 112 out of 648 items to 1859. We must trust the Editors for what has not been included. There is then a biographical register (51 pages) of people mentioned or involved in the correspondence. After that an updated bibliography of known publications by Mueller in all forms. This occupies 112 pages and a rough calculation gives about 1,600 items!! An invaluable list for anyone chasing the complicated publications history of Mueller's papers.

Then an appendix (78 pages) of Mueller plant names, a rough calculation giving a mere 4,900 species. The book ends with a small clutch of letters about Mueller, a bibliography to the volume, an index of plant names in the correspondence and finally a general index.

Australian botanists will be forever grateful for the dedicated work of the editors and their many contributors to produce this first volume. It reveals a man hugely enthusiastic about his science, "... a german, drunk with the love of his science and careless of ease and regardless of difficulty in whatever form it might present itself ..." Latrobe, 1853. It goes some way to redress the anglophilic, xenophobic culture in Australia during which the major Germanic contributions to Australian science have suffered so badly - Mueller caricatured, Leichhardt denigrated and incompetent, fatal Burke raised to iconic status. Such is our appreciation of Mueller that this volume is printed in Germany for Die Deutsche Bibliothek by Peter Lang.

I would have liked a little more information on Mueller's domestic and office staff. He never married and presumably had housekeeper(s). What office staff helped with his tremendous correspondence? To what extend did Mueller handle the collections, the numerous duplicates sent overseas? What sort of a manager of men was he? Perhaps the later volumes may tell us more. Despite the disasters it is a cheering book, revealing a man anxious to display his science to the world, one in touch with colleagues world wide, and whose whole ethos was the good of the community (despite scattering blackberries).

All so different from the mean minded present time when every thought must be considered intellectual property, covered by patents if possible, and ministerial approval sought for the simplest publication.

Reviewer: David E. Symon