Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/September 1894/Sketch of Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg

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THE late Prof. J. M. Maisch, in his memorial oration on Muhlenberg as a Botanist,[1] laid stress upon the frequency with which his name is met in works of descriptive botany as that of the person who first recognized as separate and scientifically designated some particular genus or species. Waiving all considerations of credit for priority or of personal fame, the leading aim in all Muhlenberg's botanical work seems to have been to assure the precise and accurate definition of the plant with which he was for the moment dealing.

Names of the Muhlenberg family are conspicuous in the history of this country. Its founder in America, Pastor Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg, who came to Philadelphia by way of Charleston, S. C, in 1743, was known as the patriarch of the Lutheran Church in the United States. His eldest son, Johann Peter Gabriel, also a minister in his earlier life, was a major general in the Revolutionary War, Vice-President of Pennsylvania, six years a member of the House of Representatives of the United States, a United States Senator, and an officer of the revenue. Another son, Friedrich August, who also began his career in the pulpit, was a member of the Continental Congress, a member and Speaker of the Pennsylvania Legislature, and a member of the House of Representatives of the first four Congresses, during two of which he was Speaker.

The third son, Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg, the subject of the present sketch, was born in New Providence, Montgomery County, Pa., November 17, 1753, and died in Lancaster, Pa., May 23, 1815. He attended schools in his native place and in Philadelphia, whither his family removed in 1761. When he was ten years old he was sent with his brothers to Halle, in order to finish his academic studies and to prepare for the ministry. Arrived in Holland, the brothers proceeded directly to Halle, while young Henry set out in the care of an attendant for Einbeck, his father's native place, where many of his relatives still lived. Deserted on the journey by the man to whose protection he had been confided, this boy, left without money in a strange land, bravely pushed forward on foot and thus finally reached his destination. After his visit to Einbeck he entered a school in Halle, in which he continued about six years. He spent a longer time in the higher classes than was necessary, awaiting the age at which he could be admitted to the university. This he entered in 1769, but remained in attendance only about a year. He returned to Pennsylvania in 1770, and was ordained by the synod of his church and appointed assistant to his father in the pastoral work "at Philadelphia, Barren Hill, and on the Raritan." In 1774 he was called to be the third preacher in Philadelphia. The prominence of his brothers in the Revolutionary councils exposed him to dangers from the British, as they approached the scene of his labors, and he fled, September 22, 1777, not to return till the following year. In 1780 he became pastor of the Lutheran church at Lancaster, where he spent the rest of his life. Mr. Muhlenberg was married, in 1774, to Catherine, daughter of Philip Hall, of Philadelphia. He had two sons; one them, Henry Augustus, won a high reputation, first as clergyman, and afterward in public affairs. The other son, Frederick Augustus, became an able physician in Lancaster, Pa.

His work in botany began during his residence in the country following his flight from Philadelphia. He resumed the study earnestly after his return to the city, and became deeply interested in the less conspicuous flowering plants and the cryptogams. Botanists had not been idle in the study of North American plants. Even before the time of Linnæus Dr. J. Cornutus had published in Paris, in 1635, his History of Canadian Plants, and John Banister his Virginia Catalogue in London in 1688. Johann Friedrich Gronovius, of Leyden, had brought out his Flora Virginica, with the Linnæan classification, in 1739 to 1743, of which his son published a second edition in 1762. To this work John Clayton, who had permanently settled in Virginia, and whose name is preserved in Claytonia virginica—our familiar spring beauty—was a contributor. Other botanists who had worked in this field were Mark Catesby, with his Natural History of Canada, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1731-1743), and his Hortus Britanniæ Americanus (1763-1767); Julius von Wangenheim, with his German Description of Some North American Trees and Shrubs, with reference to German Forests (1781); Humphry Marshall, with his Arbustrum, or Catalogue of American Trees and Shrubs (1785); and Walter, with his Flora Caroliniana. The works of Linnæus also had much matter of American origin, communicated to him by Peter Kalm, Clayton, John Mitchell, Cadwalader Colden, and John Bartram. Most of these works, and others by the older European botanists, were used by Muhlenberg in his studies.

More strictly contemporary with him were the two Michaux—André (1801-1803) and François André (1805-1813); while in the works of Pursh (1814), Shecut (1806), Le Conte (1811), and

Bigelow (1814) is incorporated matter borrowed from the results of his researches.

It thus appears that the field of the present Atlantic Middle States had been explored with considerable energy before Muhlenberg's time. New species of plants had been discovered and additional information had been gained concerning species already known. The scientific value of these observations, attested by the herbariums which still exist, and by what Muhlenberg furnished for publication, is enhanced and interest is added to them by a careful perusal of Muhlenberg's correspondence, a part of which he kept and is now preserved by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. These letters—some from European naturalists and others from American—were written in the last sixteen years of the eighteenth century and the first and part of the second decades of the nineteenth, and are often annotated with Muhlenberg's remarks. Of his own letters only a few copies are present, chiefly those which he wrote between 1791 and 1794 to Dr. Manasseh Cutler, of Ipswich, Mass. Further, a number of letters from various students and note-books, botanical notices, descriptions, and outlines in Muhlenberg's handwriting are in the possession of his descendants, or have been handed over by them to scientific societies.

The note-books bear witness to the earnestness with which Muhlenberg took up and pursued his botanical studies after his flight from Philadelphia. During the year 1778 may be found numerous descriptions of plants like that of Eupatorium purpureum, trumpetseed or gravel root; to which are added such notes as "is probably Eupatorium (altissimum)." Doubtful remarks of the kind abound. "Is it probably Actea?" "It may be Azalea?" "Perhaps it is Convallaria?" It is evident from such notes that Muhlenberg had not advanced far in acquaintance with the wild plants in the summer of 1778. In the same year he seems to have drawn up a plan of studies by the systematic execution of which he could hardly fail to acquire the desired knowledge. Its most notable points are as follows: "How may I best advance myself in the knowledge of plants? It is winter, and there is little to do. In winter I must select such plants as I can easily remove. . . . Toward spring I should go out and form a chronology of the trees, how they come out, and of the flowers, how they appear, one after another. . . . I should especially remark the flowers and fruit; and there are many other circumstances, but none quite so essential.

"1. The flower, the time, the part of the plant it stands on, whether there are stamens, and how many; the pollen; whether there are pistils, and how many; their shape; whether and how there is a corolla; its color and shape; whether and how there is a calyx.

"2. What sort of a seed, and what kind of a fruit.
"3. How the plant appears otherwise; its root; its stem, if it has any; and its leaves.
"4. To make remarks on the occasional peculiarities of the plant; of my own on the smell, taste, etc., and of what others say, of which one story in a hundred may be true.

"If I could make an herbarium in whole or in part, it would be so much the better. I might plant the more important specimens in my garden. A good friend, who has the knowledge and the disposition to help me, would be of great advantage (Mr. Young, three miles from here).

"Materials to be taken on excursions: An inkstand, with pen and paper, and a box to carry my plants in safely. And when possible, a microscope. Besides the box a few sheets of paper stitched together in folio, in which to lay the plants and carry them; to be tied up in front."

It was not long before Muhlenberg became engaged in correspondence with other botanists. Dr. Johann David Schöpf, an officer of the Hessian troops stationed in New York during the Revolutionary War, who traveled through the Eastern States to Florida, after the conclusion of peace, in search of medicinal plants, became acquainted with Muhlenberg and was assisted by him. After his return to Germany he was the occasion of a correspondence between Muhlenberg and Prof. Schreber, of Erlangen, and this was followed by exchanges of letters with other eminent botanists in Germany, England, France, and Sweden, as well as with Americans.

Like a true naturalist, Muhlenberg continued to exercise the greatest care and thoroughness in observation and research. A botanical excursion and note book of 1785 contains the following plan of work:

"This year I shall again keep a calendar of all plants as I may observe them, especially when in bloom. When I am quite certain, I shall set down only the Linnæan name; when not quite certain, I shall make a full description. Especially shall I try to complete the descriptions of 1789 in those kinds of plants in which many species are most exact. As I very carefully explored this region last year, I shall this year visit other regions, namely: 1. The mountains on the Susquehanna, in May and July. 2. The mountains called Chestnut Mountains, also twice, etc. I must further call upon apothecaries and take other pains to learn the officinal plants, their virtues and their common names. I must this year pay particular attention to the seeds, and especially to describe all herbs as completely and exactly as possible, especially when I am not wholly certain. I shall give particular attention to those of which there are many species, such as asclepias, convolvulus, serratula, aster, solidago, and all the ferns. . . . The seed vessels and seeds are very important for the genus and species, and I must therefore give careful attention to them." He also indicates here as one of his purposes, besides the native plants, to observe all the exotics, whether they need protection in winter or are completely acclimated.

In the spring of 1791 he was able to inform Dr. Cutler that he had collected more than eleven hundred different plants in a circuit of about three miles from Lancaster, and that he was devoting himself to the collection of material concerning their medicinal and economical applications. In a later letter, November 8, 1791, he wrote: "I am collecting, as far as possible, all I can learn concerning the medicinal and economical uses of our plants and am writing it down. If the medicinal application seems to be sufficiently confirmed from different sides, and agrees with the character of the plant, I either try it on myself or commend it to my friends. I raise most of the grasses in my garden, and experiment how often they can be cut, and whether they are readily eaten by horses or cattle." These grasses numbered at the beginning of 1798 one hundred and fifty-six species, including many introduced ones, and among them were a large number of new species and at least one new genus. This collecting and testing of grasses is mentioned in other letters. An exchange seems to have been arranged with Prof. Schreber, of American plants for foreign grasses; and, besides mosses, grasses of New England were obtained from Dr. Cutler, especially such as grew near the sea.

Some of these notes on the medicinal properties of plants, Muhlenberg says, were furnished to Dr. Schöpf for use in his contemplated work on American Materia Medica. Although the author of that work, which was published in 1787, acknowledged indebtedness for information to several other American botanists, he does not give Muhlenberg's name—a most ungrateful omission. A similar case occurred in connection with an American book. When Muhlenberg first saw a copy of Bigelow's Medical Botany, he could not help remarking to his son, after looking through it, "This gentleman has appropriated to himself all my explanations, without making any acknowledgment." But he never called public attention to this, and there were other such trespasses which were also let pass unnoticed.

In July, 1785, Muhlenberg communicated to the American Philosophical Society an outline of a Flora Lancastriensis (flora of Lancaster) containing the results of his own observations on the plants and their habits. At the same time he presented a manuscript Calendar of Flowers. In February, 1791, he communicated the Index Flora Lancastriensis (Index to the Flora of Lancaster). This was published in the third volume of the first series of the Transactions of the society. It is arranged according to the Linnæan system and contains four hundred and fifty-four genera with nearly eleven hundred species, including both wild and cultivated plants. Of the naming of these plants, Muhlenberg remarked in a note: "When I found no name in Linnæus's system, I took a name from other recently published works, or from the letters of Dr. Schreber, with whom I kept up a correspondence. When I found no name in this way, I was obliged to give one myself and to add to it N. S., till better information came from more capable botanists." The cryptogamous plants are represented in this index by twenty-five genera with one hundred and twenty-five species. The work, as its name implies, consists merely of the enumeration of the species observed, without description or indication of their habits or uses. A supplement to this index, presented to the American Philosophical Society in September, 1796, and published in the fourth volume of its Transactions, contained forty-four additional genera with sixty-two species of phanerogams, of which nine were hitherto unknown species of grasses; while the cryptogams were further represented by two hundred and twenty-six additional species, belonging to twenty-nine genera.

Muhlenberg perceived very early in his botanical studies how great confusion was likely to arise if names were conferred upon plants supposed to be new, without considering whether they might not have been previously identified and named by others. We have already described the painstaking care he took in his own notes to find the correct names of his specimens. While he was critical of the work of others, he was always ready to recognize their merit, and to make allowance for their imperfections. He wrote to Dr. Cutler of his work on the Useful Plants of New England that, although the author regarded it as immature, "it was of great use to me, and I was very much pleased with it. Every beginning will be imperfect, especially in a new country, and I have not yet read any botanical work without errors. Even Linnæus's works, which were prepared with so much industry, are full of them." In another place he wrote: "Herr Aiton,[2] in my opinion, makes too many species out of varieties; for instance, his asters and goldenrods. We must expect such things when descriptions are made from specimens taken from a garden instead of from their natural habitats, where plants grow numerously and in various soils." Other criticisms of similar tenor may be taken from his letters, all made from the point of view of exactness in identification and description.

Freedom from self-glorification and from solicitude for the recognition of his work are patent in all his writings and transactions. When Dr. Barton announced, in 1791, his illustrated Flora of Pennsylvania as in preparation, Muhlenberg concluded that as that author had seen his manuscripts and herbarium, it would not be necessary for him to publish anything except a few additional notes which he might make during the year, and a Floral Calendar. "Excuse my enthusiasm for science," he wrote to Dr. Cutler, in 1792, "which has given me so many pleasant hours, and which, I know, has been cultivated by you with great success. Botany needs your co-operation, and when you have prepared a full table, please leave a few fragments for me." It was this readiness to give credit to the merit of others, combined with his clear vision of the confusion that threatened to arise from the continuance of planless labors, that decided him as early as 1785 to bring out a plan for common labor in making up the Flora of North America. He came to the Philosophical Society again in 1790 or 1791 with this plan. "I repeat," he writes, "my formerly expressed desire that a number of my learned countrymen should unite in botanical investigation and send in their floras to the society for revision and publication, so that by combination of the floras of the different States we may obtain a flora of the United States which shall rest on good and definite observations." While this plan was not carried into execution through the medium of the American Philosophical Society, Muhlenberg again and again returned to it in his extensive correspondence. Thus he wrote: "Others should do the same (that is, search out the flora of the neighborhood of their homes), and, after collecting material for a dozen years, let a Flora of North America be written." Further, "I first sent in a sketch, and in 1790 an index of all the plants that grow here, in the expectation that my botanical friends would join in working up the floras of their several States, so that in about ten years a more general work might be undertaken." And in another place: "If the botanists continue to proceed in the way they are going, in a few years all will be confusion. In order to be sure, we should confer with one another. For this purpose I have printed my Index before publishing full descriptions." A letter to Dr. Cutler, of November 12, 1792, goes more into particulars; it reads: "You have made the beginning of a Flora of New England, and all friends of botany wish that you would go on and complete the work. Let each of our American botanists do something, and the wealth of America would soon be recognized. Michaux should do South Carolina and Georgia; Kromsch, North Carolina; Greenway, Virginia and Maryland; Barton, New Jersey, Delaware, and the lower parts of Pennsylvania; Bartram, Marshall, and Muhlenberg, each his neighborhood; Mitchell, New York; and you, with the Northern botanists, your States. How much might then be accomplished. If, then, one of our younger associates—Dr. Barton, for instance, whose specialty it is—would combine the different floras into one, how pleasant it would be for the botanical world! I have written to nearly all the persons named above, and hope to receive their concurrence. Let me know your views about it." Dr. Cutler gave the scheme his unreserved approval.

This plan was not carried out. Instead of it, André Michaux worked the combined collections of his eleven years' travels in the United States, through the French botanist Richard, into a Flora of North America, and it appeared in Paris in 1803, one year after the author's death in Madagascar.

The publication of this flora did not change Muhlenberg's view of the necessity of comparative work in co-operation, and in order to bring it a step nearer he decided in 1809 to write a catalogue of the then known native and naturalized plants of North America (Catalogus Plantarum Americæ Septentrionalis, huc usque cognitarum indigenarum et cicurum), the printing of which was finished after nearly nine months of work, at the end of July, 1813. While Michaux had described about fifteen hundred flowering plants and ferns, Muhlenberg was able ten years later to exhibit more, than double the number of species, and besides these to add, from specimens mostly collected in Pennsylvania, 175 mosses, 39 liverworts, 32 algæ, 176 lichens, and 305 fungi, in all 727 species. The Compositæ comprised in Michaux 193 species, in Muhlenberg 410.

Muhlenberg conscientiously named not only the books which he had used in the determination of his collected plants, but also the twenty-eight correspondents in different parts of the United States who had assisted him in his researches by sending plants or seeds. The work gives, besides the botanical and English names, only the numbers of the several parts of the flower, the color of the corolla, the character of the fruit, the locality, and the time of flowering, all as briefly as possible.

At the same time a complete description of the plants growing around Lancaster had been ready to print for years; likewise a complete description of all the other North American plants which Muhlenberg had himself seen and arranged in his herbarium. These descriptions were consequently based entirely on his own knowledge, and had, therefore, especial value. Unfortunately, they have not been published.

A part of one of these works, comprising the grasses, was printed in 1817, two years after the author's death, under the title Descriptio uberior Graminum (Fuller Description of Grasses). The manuscript of it was presented by Zaccheus Collins, a friend of Muhlenberg, to the American Philosophical Society in 1831.

The valuable herbarium, for which Muhlenberg collected and sorted for a full third of a century, was bought by a number of his friends for a little more than five hundred dollars, and was presented to the American Philosophical Society in February, 1818. It was then in good condition, but has, unfortunately, not been well taken care of, and has become so decayed as to have little if any more than historical value.

In considering the question of the value to science of these labors of a whole lifetime, we should think first of the greater clearness which resulted from them to the descriptive botany of North America. Although Muhlenberg printed but little, and although he often lost the claim to priority through being anticipated in publication by less reserved botanists, yet we find in Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States about one hundred species and varieties which were first established as such by him, and besides them a nearly equal number which were either assigned afterward to other genera, or with which, on the principle of priority in publication, the names given by other botanists were retained. This is really an admirable result, considering the zeal of collectors and hunters before and during Muhlenberg's time, and the limited extent of the field which he was able personally to examine. His services have also been well recognized by botanists. A goldenrod was given by Torrey and Gray the name Solidago Muhlenbergii; Grisebach named a centaury Erythræa Muhlenbergii; a small willow was called by Barratt Salix Muhlenbergii; and Gray gave the name Muhlenbergii to a species of reed or sedge. Two mosses of the genera Phascum and Funaria were named after Muhlenberg by Schwartz; two lichens of the genera Umbilicaria and Gyrophora by Acharius; and a fungus of the genus Dothidea by Elliott.

About half of the plant names given by Muhlenberg which are now recognized belong to the reeds and the grasses, Cyperaceæ, and Gramineæ, in the study of which he was supported by Schreber. One of the first new genera of grasses observed by him, to which belong seven species in the Northern floral region of the United States, and a still larger number of other species in the other States and Territories, was given the name Muhlenbergia by Schreber. At least five species of this genus, which have not become domiciled east of the Mississippi, are known in Colorado.

This review of Muhlenberg's botanical work would not be complete without special mention of his scientific correspondence, his personal intercourse with naturalists, and the honors he received. Among his foreign correspondents were Dillenius, Hedwig, Hoffmann, Persoon, Pursh, Smith, Schöpf, Schreber, Sturm, Willdenow, William Alton, of Kew; Batsch, the mycologist; Palisot de Beauvoir in Paris, and Dr. Thibaud in Montpellier; Christian Ludwig Schkuhr, of Wittenberg, an eminent cryptogamist; Professor and Medical Counselor Heinrich Adolph Schrader, of Göttingen; Kurt Sprengel, professor of medicine and botanist at Halle; and Prof. Olof Swartz, one of Linnæus's most eminent pupils. Among the twenty-eight home correspondents mentioned by Muhlenberg in the preface to his catalogue are the Rev. Christian Denke, of Nazareth, Pa., the Rev. Samuel Kramph, of North Carolina, the Moravian bishop Jacob Van Vleck, and Dr. Christopher Müller, of Harmony, Pa. One of the most valued was Dr. Baldwin, of South Carolina, and Muhlenberg's letters to him have been published by William Darlington, in a volume entitled Baldwiniana. All or nearly all these correspondents were entertained by him in his home at Lancaster, which was open to all students of plants, and was usually visited by them when they came to Philadelphia. Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland sought him there on their return from their long sojourn in Spanish America; and Humboldt's letter acknowledging his hospitality is the last which that master in science wrote in America.

Learned societies and institutions likewise covered him with their honors. The University of Pennsylvania gave him the degree of Master of Arts in 1780; Princeton College, that of Doctor of Divinity in 1787. He was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society on January 22, 1785, along with Joseph Priestley and James Madison. Of other societies he received diplomas: from the Imperial Academy of Erlangen, 1791; the Society of Friends of Natural History, Berlin, 1798; the Westphalian Natural History Society, 1798; the Phytographic Society of Göttingen, 1802; the Physical Society of Göttingen, 1802; the Linnæan Society of Philadelphia, 1809; the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1814; the Society for the Promotion of the Useful Arts, Albany, N. Y., 1815; the Physiographical Society of Lund, Sweden, 1815; and the New York Historical Society, April 12, 1815, not quite six weeks before his death.

Introducing the description of a Muhlenbergia in the second volume of his work on the Grasses, Prof. Schreber wrote: "The genus of which this remarkable grass is on account of its beauty and of the particularly curious structure of its organs of fructification one of the most notable species, received its name from me when I published the new edition of the Genera Plantarum of the honored Linnæus, after my most revered friend Dr. Heinrich Muhlenberg, evangelical preacher at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and President of Franklin College there, and also an eminent member of many learned societies; who has, through the discovery of numerous new species and in other ways, rendered immortal service to the natural history of North America, and especially to the knowledge of the plants of Pennsylvania and the other United States."

  1. Delivered before the Pioneerverein of Philadelphia, May 6, 1886, and published in Dr. Fr. Hoffmann's Pharmaceutische Rundschau, June, 1886; also separately. It is the principal source whence we have drawn the matter of this sketch.
  2. In his Hortus Kewensis, 1789.