Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/June 1886/Sketch of George Engelmann, M.D.

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THE United States has had many botanists who, making the best use of the immense resources of fresh material which our large and virgin country afforded, have made extensive and important additions to the scope of their science. None among them, perhaps—unless we make a single exception—has done better work in this line and made more valuable contributions than Dr. George Engelmann. "More than fifty years ago," says Dr. Asa Gray, in his sketch of him, "his oldest associates in this country—one of them his survivor—dedicated to him a monotypical genus of plants, a native of the plains over whose borders the young immigrant on his arrival wandered solitary and disheartened. Since then the name of Engelmann has, by his own resources and authorship, become unalterably associated with the buffalo-grass of the plains, the noblest conifers in the Rocky Mountains, the most stately cactus in the world, and with most of the associated species, as well as with many other plants, of which perhaps only the annals of botany may take account."

George Engelmann was born at Frankfort-on-the-Main, February 2, 1809, and died in St. Louis, Missouri, February 4, 1884. He came of a family of clergymen who had been settled for several generations as pastors at Bacharach on the Rhine, and was the eldest of thirteen children. His father was director of a school for girls at Frankfort. He went through the usual course of gymnasia! instruction in that city, and there acquired his taste for scientific studies, which was stimulated under the inspiration given by the Leuckenberg Philosophical Society, a body to which the journey of Rupell, one of its members, in Nubia, Kordofan, Arabia Petræa, and Abyssinia, had given considerable renown. In the spring of 1827, when he was eighteen years old, he entered the University of Heidelberg, where he met as fellow-students Alexander Braun, who afterward became an eminent botanist, and Carl Schimper, whose name is associated with the early history of phyllotaxy. A close fellowship, which lasted through Braun's life, sprang up between him and Braun, and they were accustomed, at their evening meetings, to discuss questions of the physiology and morphology of plants. Here he also met and made friends with Agassiz, who afterward became a brother-in-law of Braun's. In 1828 he removed, in consequence of a political incident at Heidelberg, to the University of Berlin, whence, after two years of residence there, he went to Würzburg, and there took the degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1831. His graduating thesis, "De Antholysi Prodromus" a morphological dissertation on the study of monstrosities, illustrated with his own drawings, was an important contribution to teratology, and has held a prominent place in the literature of morphology. Having been brought under the notice of Goethe, who had forty years before published an essay on the morphology of plants, only four weeks before his death, that great author testified his appreciation of the mastery which the young botanist had attained of the subject by offering to present to him the unpublished notes and sketches which he had accumulated. Engelmann's original manuscript of the thesis, with his drawings, is now preserved in the library of the Herbarium of Harvard University.

This pamphlet, written in Latin, and that not the most classic, has been compared, in "Nature," by Mr. Maxwell F. Masters, with the more elaborate "Élémens de Tératologic Végétale" of Moquin-Tandon, written nearly ten years later, or in 1841. Moquin's work, says Mr. Masters, "is written in a style which even a foreigner can read with pleasure. Its method, too, is clear and symmetrical; but when we compare the two works from a philosophical point of view, and consider that the one was a mere college essay, while the other was the work of a professed botanist, we must admit that Engelmann's treatise, so far as it goes, affords evidence of a deeper insight into the nature and causes of the deviations from the ordinary conformation of plants than does that of Moquin."

Engelmann spent a part of 1832 in Paris, in the study of medicine and science, along with Braun and Agassiz. Some of his relatives had determined to make investments in land in the Mississippi Valley, and one of them had settled in Illinois, near St. Louis. The others invited him to visit the country, as an agent for them, and he accepted the proposition, being moved to do so, one of his biographers suggests, by the expectation of finding in America an interesting field of botanical research. He sailed from Bremen in September, 1832, landed in Baltimore, after a voyage of six weeks, visited Philadelphia, where he made the acquaintance of the botanist Nuttall, and arrived at a friend's farm in Missouri in the middle of the ensuing winter. He resided on the farm of his uncle Fritz, near Belleville, Illinois, till the spring of 1835, when he undertook a horseback-journey through Southwestern Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas, down to Louisiana. After nearly dying of fever during the summer in the swamps of Arkansas, he returned to St. Louis, then a frontier town of eight thousand inhabitants, and began the practice of medicine there in December. He combined with his medical practice, which was very successful, and became so extensive as to make him one of the leading physicians of St. Louis, botanical investigations as a side pursuit. He made collections which he sent, with his own scientific descriptions, to the European museums, and also for his own herbarium. It was through one of his herbariums, which Dr. Gray examined in Berlin, that that botanist became acquainted with Dr. Engelmann's studies; and when the latter passed through New York on his return from his marriage-journey to Kreuznach, in 1840, Dr. Gray embraced the opportunity of making his acquaintance, and formed with him a life-long friendship.

Dr. Engelmann made a second botanical excursion south, to Arkansas in 1837. His first botanical work, "A Monography of North American Cuscutinæ," or dodders, was published in 1842, in the "American Journal of Science," and made him known throughout the scientific world. Till this time only one species of dodder indigenous to the United States was known. Engelmann's monograph treated of fourteen species, all found within the Mississippi Valley, or east of it. A more systematic treatise, published in the "Transactions of the St. Louis Academy of Sciences," in 1859, after investigation of the whole genus in America and Europe, gave the characteristics of seventy-seven species.

The botanical chapter in the report of Colonel Doniphan's expedition of 1846 and 1847 to New Mexico, published by the Government in 1848, was prepared by Dr. Engelmann from material furnished by Dr. Wislizenus, his colleague in the medical profession, who was a member of the expedition.

In 1849 Dr. Engelmann published, in the "Memoranda of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences," the "Plantæ Fendlerianæ," thereby, says his biographer in the St. Louis "Universe," "drawing from obscurity another German-American botanist, August Fendler." Fendler and he had become acquainted on a governmental expedition to the Rocky Mountains, to which the former was attached as engineer. He was afterward engaged for two years, upon Engelmann's recommendation, in classifying and arranging the Henry Shaw collections of plants. He traveled in the Rocky Mountains, California, Mexico, Central America, and Brazil, and died in the Island of Trinidad in 1882. His name, the "Universe" adds, can not be forgotten in the history of the American flora. A number of plants are named after him, among them one of the handsomest cactuses, the Cereus Fendleri.

Dr. Engelmann's work upon the cactus family is styled by Dr. Gray, in the "American Journal of Science," most extensive and important, as well as particularly difficult, and his authority the highest. "He essentially for the first time established the arrangement of these plants upon floral and carpological characters." This work was begun in the report of the Doniphan expedition, and was continued, by his account in the "American Journal of Science," in 1852, of the giant cactus of the Gila (Cereus giganteus) and an allied species; "by his synopsis of the Cactaceæ of the United States, published in the 'Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,' 1856; and by his two illustrated memoirs upon the Southern and Western species, one contributed to the fourth volume of the series of 'Pacific Railroad Expedition Reports,' the other to Emory's 'Report on the Mexican Boundary Survey.' He had made large preparations for a greatly needed revision of at least the North American Cactaceæ. But although his collections and sketches will be indispensable to the future monographer, very much knowledge of this difficult group of plants is lost by his death. Upon two other peculiarly American groups of plants, very difficult of elucidation in herbarium specimens, Yucca and Agave, Dr. Engelmann may be said to have brought his work up to the time. Nothing of importance is yet to be added to what he modestly styles 'Notes on the Genus Yucca' published in the third volume of the 'Transactions of the St. Louis Academy,' 1873, and not much to 'Notes on Agave' illustrated by photographs, included in the same volume and published in 1875."

Other special works mentioned by Dr. Gray are those on Juncus, in the second volume of the "Transactions of the St. Louis Academy"; Euphorbia, in the fourth volume of the "Pacific Railroad Reports," and in the "Botany of the Mexican Boundary"; Sagittaria and its allies; Isoetes; the North American Loranthaceæ Sparganium; certain groups of Gentiana; and some other genera. "Of the highest interest, and among the best specimens of Dr. Engelmann's botanical work, are his various papers upon the 'American Oaks' and the Coniferæ, published in 'Transactions of the St. Louis Academy' and elsewhere, the results of Ions-continued and most conscientious study. The same must be said of his persevering study of the North American vines, of which he at length recognized and characterized a dozen species—excellent subjects for his nice discrimination, and now becoming of no small importance to grape-growers, both in this country and in Europe. Nearly all that we know scientifically of our species and forms of Vitis is directly due to Dr. Engelmann's investigations." The list of his papers published in "Coulter's Botanical Gazette" for May, 1884, which is not quite complete, contains about a hundred entries.

Dr. Engelmann made several journeys of considerable length in the interest of science, or for geographical observation. Two of them were to the Rocky Mountains and Colorado, and New Mexico; a longer tour was to the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina; and a third, in 1880, to the Pacific coast and Oregon, where "he saw for the first time in their native home the plants described thirty years previous."

Dr. Engelmann's meteorological observations constitute another important feature of his scientific work. They were begun as soon as he had established himself in St. Louis, and were kept up unintermittingly from New-Year's-day of 1836, to February 2, 1884—two days before his death—or during a period of forty-eight years. He visited his instruments regularly and systematically, every morning at seven o'clock, at noon, and at nine o'clock in the evening; and "even in the last week he was seen sweeping a path through the snow in his garden to reach his maximum and minimum thermometers." His last publication was a digest of the thermometrical part of these observations. In offering this paper to the St. Louis Academy of Sciences at nearly the last meeting of that body which he attended, he apologized for not waiting till the half-century had been completed before presenting his results, saying that they could not be appreciably different after two or three years more. He had been endeavoring to discover some law governing the weather, but had failed to do so. A member of the Academy expressed the hope that the half-century would be completed. Dr. Engelmann replied that he had some misgivings on the subject.

Dr. Engelmann was known, through his life in St. Louis, as a public-spirited citizen, who always had the interests of the town unselfishly at heart. He also showed a practical interest in the efforts of the European peoples to gain their freedom; and, when the revolutions broke out in 1848, he became the head of an organization which was formed at St. Louis to assist them. He took part, in 1836, in the organization of the "Western Academy of Science," which, coming before the times were ripe for such an organization, had only a short life. He was the first president, and served in several subsequent terms as president, of the "Academy of Science of St. Louis," organized in 1856; he always had something of interest to communicate at its meetings; and, under the inspiration he gave it, it became a living and active body, though not large in numbers.

Dr. Engelmann with his family visited Europe in 1808, when his son entered upon the pursuit of his medical studies at Berlin. Again, a few months after the death of Mrs. Engelmann, suffering from ill health, he went to Germany in the summer of 1883, seeking the benefits of a change of scene. He returned home, having gained a considerable accession of strength. His death was finally accelerated by a sudden cold.

His companions, says the "Universe," "will never forget his pluck and energy, his enthusiasm and diligence, and the geniality and attentiveness shown toward all of them." He was accustomed always to re-examine established suppositions in order to receive new light through newly discovered facts. In all his doings he was very determined; "he had no great esteem for speculation, but relied only upon facts gained by hard and strenuous study. He was a man of strict scientific truth. He could examine a plant again and again in all the stages of its growth, microscopically and chemically, before he came to a conclusion, and what he then wrote was the accurate result of his painful observations, without any hypothetical suppositions. "Nothing," says Dr. Gray, "escaped his attention; he drew with facility; and he methodically secured his observations by notes and sketches, available for his own after-use and for that of his correspondents. But the lasting impression which he has made upon North American botany is due to his wise habit of studying his subjects in their systematic relations, and of devoting himself to a particular genus or group of plants (generally the more difficult) until he had elucidated it as completely as lay in his power. In this way all his work was made to tell effectively."

Not very many of those, Dr. Gray adds in another part of his sketch, "who could devote their whole time to botany have accomplished as much" as did this doctor in practice, who could give it only the time he could spare from his duties as a physician. "It need not be said," Dr. Gray continues, "and yet perhaps it should not pass unrecorded, that Dr. Engelmann was appreciated by his fellow-botanists both at home and abroad; that his name is upon the rolls of most of the societies devoted to the investigation of Nature; that he was 'everywhere the recognized authority in those departments of his favorite science which had most interested him'; and that, personally one of the most affable and kindly of men, he was as much beloved as respected by those who knew him."