Welwitsch, Friedrich Martin Josef (DNB00)
|←Welton, Richard||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 60
Welwitsch, Friedrich Martin Josef
WELWITSCH, FRIEDRICH MARTIN JOSEF (1807–1872), botanist, was born at Maria-Saal, near Klagenfurt, Carinthia, on 5 Feb. 1807, being one of the large family of a well-to-do farmer and surveyor. While at school he was encouraged by his father in the study of botany, and when sent to the university of Vienna with a view to the legal profession, he was so devoted to the study of natural history as to make no progress in the study of the law. His father thereupon withdrew his allowance; but Welwitsch supported himself by writing dramatic criticisms, and entered the medical faculty of the university. In 1834 he gained a prize offered by the mayor of Vienna by his ‘Beiträge zur cryptogamischen Flora Unter-Oesterreichs,’ and his appointment about the same time to report on the cholera in Carinthia reconciled his father to his new profession. After travelling as tutor to a nobleman, he returned to Vienna, and graduated M.D. in 1836, his thesis being a ‘Synopsis Nostochinearum Austriæ inferioris.’ He spent much of his time in the botanical museum at Vienna, and became intimate with Fenzl and other botanists; and when, in 1839, an act of youthful indiscretion rendered it expedient for him to leave Austria, he accepted a commission from the Unio Itineraria of Würtemberg to collect the plants of the Azores and Cape de Verde Islands, and with this object came to England, whence he sailed to Lisbon. He learnt Portuguese in six weeks, and, becoming attached to Portugal, never left that country till 1853, except for short visits to Paris and London. During these years he had charge of the botanical gardens at Lisbon and Coimbra, and of those of the Duke of Palmella at Cintra, Alemtejo, and elsewhere. He explored most of Portugal, forming a herbarium of nine thousand species, fully represented by specimens in all stages of growth, with descriptive notes and synonymy, sending eleven thousand specimens to the Unio Itineraria, and depositing sets with the academies of Lisbon and Paris. In 1841 Welwitsch had a three days' excursion to the Valle de Zebro with Robert Brown (1773–1858) [q. v.]; and in 1847 and 1848 with Count Descayrac he explored the southern province of Algarve, then little known to botanists. Between 1847 and 1852 he added 250 species of the larger fungi to those enumerated in Brotero's ‘Flora’ from the neighbourhood of Lisbon, while in his zeal for algæ (of which in 1850 he published a list in the second volume of the ‘Actas’ of the Lisbon Academy) he spent hours day after day up to his waist in water. In 1851 he sent twelve thousand specimens of flowering plants and six thousand cryptogams to England for sale; and, while the fungi and mosses collected by him were described by Miles Joseph Berkeley and Mr. Mitten in 1853, his own last contribution to science was a paper in the ‘Journal of Botany’ for 1872, dealing with the mosses of Portugal. He also studied and collected mollusks and insects, especially Coleoptera and Hymenoptera, and in 1844 was one of the founders of the Horticultural Society of Lisbon. In 1851 Welwitsch was engaged to prepare the Portuguese collections for the Great Exhibition, and accompanied them to London, where he took counsel with Robert Brown and others as to the exploration of Portuguese West Africa, for which he had been chosen by the government of his adopted country. He started from Lisbon on this seven years' journey in August 1853, visited Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands and Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he spent nine days in making his first acquaintance with tropical vegetation, and reached Loanda in October. Nearly a year was devoted to the exploration of the coast zone from the mouth of the Quizembo, 8°15′ S. lat., to that of the Cuanza, 9°20′ S. He had been given 270l. for his scientific outfit and voyage, and was paid 45l. a month; but finding that bearers and other expenses of his excursions far exceeded this allowance, he sent large collections of insects, seeds, living plants, and dried specimens to England for sale. In September 1854 Welwitsch ascended the river Bengo to Sange in Golungo Alto, 125 miles from the coast, where he met Livingstone, living with him some time, and remaining in this district of dense jungle in all some two years, during which he suffered much from fever, scurvy, and ulcerated legs. In 1856 he travelled south-westward to Pungo Andongo in the Presidio das Pedras Nigras, so called from the gneissic rocks three hundred to six hundred feet high which are annually blackened after the rainy season by the downward spread of a filamentous alga from ponds on their summits. After eight months' exploration from this centre he returned to Loanda, having in the course of three years explored a triangular area with 120 miles of coast as its base, and its apex at Quisonde on the Cuanza, and collected over 3,200 species of plants. He then drew up a summary of his results under the title of ‘Apontamentos phyto-geographicos sobre a flora da provincia de Angola,’ which was published at Lisbon in 1859 in the ‘Annaes do Conselho Ultramarino.’ In this work he divides Angola into three botanical regions, viz. the coast, up to an altitude of a thousand feet; the mountain woodland, from 1,000 to 2,500 feet; and the highland, above 2,500 feet. In September 1858 he took a trip to Libongo, to the north of Loanda, and in June 1859 went to Benguella and thence by sea to Mossamedes. Here the magnificent climate did much to reinvigorate him, and he found a flora near the coast more like that of Cape Colony; though only a mile inland it was more purely tropical. As he approached Cape Negro in lat. 15°40′ S. the coast rose as a plateau of tufaceous limestone, covered with sandstone shingle, three hundred or four hundred feet high and six miles across, and it was here that Welwitsch discovered that remarkable plant Tumboa Bainesii, commonly known as Welwitschia mirabilis. ‘The sensations of the enthusiastic discoverer, when he first realised the extraordinary character of the plant he had found, were, as he has said, so overwhelming that he could do nothing but kneel down on the burning soil and gaze at it, half in fear lest a touch should prove it a figment of the imagination’ (Hiern, Catalogue of the African Plants collected by Dr. Welwitsch, pt. i. p. xiii). Welwitsch collected more than two thousand specimens in Benguella; but a native war stopped his work, fifteen thousand Munanos attacking the colony of Lopollo in Huilla, where he then was, and blockading it for two months. After this Welwitsch returned to Mossamedes and Loanda, and thence, in January 1861, to Lisbon, bringing with him what was undoubtedly the best and most extensive herbarium ever collected in tropical Africa (Hiern, op. cit. p. xiv). He was placed on Portuguese government committees for the improvement of cotton cultivation in Angola and for the collecting of the products of Portuguese colonies for the London International Exhibition of 1862, in connection with which he published two of his more important independent works. Finding it necessary to compare his specimens, a very large proportion of which were new to science, with those in English collections, he obtained permission from the Portuguese government in 1863 to bring his collections, which are estimated to have comprised five thousand species of plants and three thousand species of insects, to England; and to the task of studying and arranging them he devoted the remaining nine years of his life. In connection with it he maintained an extensive correspondence with many of the leading specialists among the naturalists of Europe, and received honourable recognition from many learned societies; but the Portuguese government became impatient with his rate of progress, and ultimately, in 1866, suspended his salary of 2l. a day. Welwitsch, however, worked on in London, paying out of his own means the expenses of various publications upon which he had embarked.
He died in London on 20 Oct. 1872, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery, being described on his tomb as ‘Botanicus eximius, floræ Angolensis investigatorum princeps.’ By his will, dated three days before his death, Welwitsch directed that the study set of his African plants should be offered to the British Museum for purchase. The Portuguese government, however, claimed the whole of the collections, a claim which was resisted by the executors. The resulting chancery suit, the King of Portugal versus Carruthers and Justen, was eventually compromised, the study set being returned to Lisbon, and the museum receiving the next best set with a copy of the explanatory notes and descriptions made by Welwitsch. A catalogue of the collection is in course of publication by the trustees of the museum, the first part, edited by Mr. William Philip Hiern, having appeared in 1896. It contains an engraved portrait, biography, and full bibliography not only of Welwitsch's own work, but also of that of others relating to his collections. In the preface to the first volume of the ‘Flora of Tropical Africa’ (1868), the editor, Dr. Daniel Oliver, writes: ‘For our material from Lower Guinea, we are almost wholly indebted to the courtesy of Dr. Friedrich Welwitsch. … Without the access to Dr. Welwitsch's herbarium, this region would have been comparatively a blank in the present work.’ Mr. James Collins, in his ‘Report on the Caoutchouc of Commerce’ (1873), says: ‘To Dr. Welwitsch … belongs the credit of first identifying the plants yielding African caoutchouc.’
Of Welwitsch's many papers the more important were the ‘Apontamentos,’ already referred to, and the ‘Sertum Angolense’ in the ‘Transactions of the Linnean Society’ (vol. xxvii. 1869). Of separate publications there are few, the ‘Synopsis Nostochinearum,’ Vienna, 1836; ‘The Cultivation of Cotton in Angola,’ translated by A. R. Saraiva, London, 1862; and ‘Synopse explicativa das amostras de madeiras e drogas … colligidos na provincia de Angola enviados á esposição internacional de Londres,’ Lisbon, 1862, being the chief.[Catalogue of the African Plants collected by Dr. Welwitsch, pt. i. 1896.]