George Engelmann

George Engelmann, esteemed botanist

(1809-1884) George Engelmann was a German physician and botanist, receiving his degree in 1831. His doctoral dissertation was devoted to morphology and illustrated by Engelmann himself. The 1832 dissertation echoed Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1790 Metamorphosis of Plants so much that Goethe offered him his drawings and notes from the work. He traveled briefly to Paris, on to Baltimore and Philadelphia where he visited Thomas Nuttall, finally ending up in St. Louis in 1833. 

In St. Louis Engelmann established a medical practice but struggled financially. Eventually he earned enough to make his way back to Germany where he took a wife. They returned to America by way of New York, where he met the highly esteemed botanist Asa Gray. They became fast friends and lifelong collaborators. 

He became very trusted and therefore quite successful with his medical practice, showing compassion to all who needed medical attention. But in his later life he gave in to the pursuit of botany. Taking short leaves from his medical work, he traveled into the field and gathered some plants for study. In 1842 his research on dodders, a parasitic plant, established him as a botanist. In 1856 he took an extended leave and visited Asa Gray to do botanical work at Harvard. 

He became an expert in cacti and in 1859 published Cactaceae of the Boundary which described members of that family, many of which were gathered in the US Mexican Boundary Survey earlier in the decade and sent on to him for review. His took on more challenging plant groups such as spurges, rushes and vines, writing many papers on those subjects which were helpful to other botanists of the time. He contributed them to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and to the government as needed. In turn, the government sent him specimens in his areas of specialty. 

He founded the St. Louis Academy of Sciences and served as president for many years. Because of his international recognition, he was chosen by wealthy businessman Henry Shaw, along with Asa Gray and William Hooker, to create gardens for scientific study and public enjoyment. Those gardens became the highly regarded Missouri Botanical Garden, which now contains the 2nd largest number of type specimens in the world. 

In 1863 he was elected by Congress to be a founding member of the National Academy of Sciences. He died in 1890, and his son donated 100,000 specimens, 5,000 letters, 30 boxes of botanical notes and his personal library to the Missouri Botanical Garden. 

Associated Plants