While browsing the uncatalogued material left to the Australian Museum Research Library by naturalist Mel Ward, a scrappy, dirty little volume came to light...

Descriptive notes on Papuan plants I by Baron Ferd. von Mueller (Melbourne: 1875)

The little book was unremarkable until it was opened to reveal an inscription by Mueller himself:

‘To the Reverend Peter Macpherson, A.M. & regardfully offered by the writer of these pages.’

The inscription by Ferdinand Mueller to Peter Macpherson inside Papuan plants (1875)

The inscription by Ferdinand Mueller to Peter Macpherson inside Papuan plants (1875)

Image: Emma Gray
© Australian Museum

Ferdinand von Mueller (1825-1896) was a German chemist and botanist who moved to Australia with his sisters in 1847.

He spent a few years in Adelaide, working as a chemist, and publishing papers on botany. In 1851 he moved to Melbourne and in 1853 was appointed Government Botanist by Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe.

Mueller was a compulsive worker, spending his time collecting and researching plant specimens, publishing books and papers and dealing with his correspondence, which numbered up to 3000 letters a year. He participated in expeditions across much of Australia, from the alpine regions to the tropics.

He wrote and lectured widely on scientific topics, including the agricultural potential of the colonies, the history of science and the exploration of Papua New Guinea and Antarctica.

Mueller published hundreds of books and papers, including major, groundbreaking works on Australian botany. His network of friends and colleagues included scientists, clerics and gentlemen naturalists.

The recipient of Papuan plants, Peter Macpherson (1826-1886), was a Presbyterian minister who published several works on the history and culture of the Indigenous people of Victoria, including The Astronomy of the Australian Aborigines and Oven-mounds of the Aborigines of Victoria. He was undoubtedly part of Mueller’s scientific circle.

Ferdinand Mueller is today regarded as one of the most important contributors to Australian botany. His endeavours gained widespread notice and raised the international profile of Australian science.

Although there are hundreds of letters and signed copies of Mueller’s books still in existence across Australia (testament to his zeal as a writer and correspondent) finding an item which has been in the hands of such an eminent scientist is still a thrill.

It goes to show that there are still hidden gems to be uncovered in the Library’s collections.

mueller papua cover_big.jpg

Ferdinand Mueller, Papuan plants (1875)

Image: Emma Gray
© Australian Museum