Berthold Carl Seemann

Birth: 1825


Berthold Carl Seemann (1825-1871), botanist and traveller, born at Hanover on 28 Feb. 1825, was educated at the Lyceum there, then under Grotefend, the celebrated cuneiform scholar, from whose son he received his first botanical teaching. Seemann's first botanical paper, 'Descriptiones Plantarum Novarum vel minus cognitarum,' published in 'Flora' in 1844, was written when he was seventeen. After graduating at Gottingen, he in 1844 came to Kew and worked under John Smith the curator (1798-1888), in order to fit himself for travel as a botanical collector.

In 1846 Sir William Jackson Hooker procured Seemann's appointment as naturalist to H.M.S. Herald, under Captain H. Kellett, C.B., then engaged on a hydrographical survey of the Pacific. Seemann started at once for Panama. Finding that the Herald had not returned from Vancouver, he explored the Isthmus, finding many new plants, besides hieroglyphics at Veraguas, which he described in a paper read before the Archaeological Institute. He joined the Herald in January 1847, and remained with her till June 1851. Almost all the west coast of America was explored, and three cruises were made into Arctic seas.

In Peru and Ecuador Seemann travelled with Mr. (afterwards Captain) Bedford Clapperton Trevelyan Pim from Payta through the deserts and over the Andes to Guayaquil; and in Mexico he went from Mazatlan over the Sierra Madre to Durango and Chihuahua, narrowly escaping the Comanche and Apache Indians. In 1848 the Herald was ordered to Behring Strait to search for Franklin, first in company with the Plover and afterwards with the Enterprise and the Investigator.

Herald Island was discovered, and a higher latitude than any previously attained in that region was reached, while Seemann collected many plants and anthropological specimens relating to the Esquimaux, visited Kamtchatka and the Sandwich Islands several times, and finally came home by Hongkong, Singapore, the Cape, St. Helena, and Ascension. 'The Botany of the Voyage,' which was published between 1852 and 1857, with analyses by J. D. (now Sir Joseph) Hooker and one hundred plates by W. H. Fitch, comprises the floras of Panama, north-west Mexico, West Esquimauxland, and Hongkong. Seemann's 'Narrative of the Voyage,' published in two volumes in English in 1853, was translated into German in 1858. Its author was made Ph.D. of Gottingen, and was elected a member of the Imperial Academy Naturae Curiosorum (now the Leopoldine Academy) under the title of Bonpland.

In the same year he began, in conjunction with a brother, who died in 1868, to edit a German journal of botany under the name of 'Bonplandia,' of which ten quarto volumes were published at Hanover between 1853 and 1862. In 1857 he went to Montreal, representing the Linnean Society at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and took the opportunity to visit the United States. In 1860 he was commissioned, with Colonel Smythe, R.A., to report on the Fiji Islands, before the English government accepted their cession. His letters, written in the voyage out, to the 'Athenaeum' and the 'Gardeners' Chronicle,' were translated both into French and into German. He made the ascent of Vorua and Buku Levu.

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His report 'On the Resources and Vegetable Products of Fiji' was presented to parliament, and in 1862 was published separately as 'Viti: an Account of a Government Mission to the Vitian or Fijian Islands.' The appendix contained a catalogue of all the previously described plants of the islands, and some new species were described in 'Bonplandia.' In the same year he contributed an essay on 'Fiji and its Inhabitants' to Francis Galton's 'Vacation Tours.' In 1865 he began the issue of a 'Flora Vitiensis,' in ten quarto parts, with one hundred plates by Fitch. Of this, nine parts, written by himself, were published before his death; the tenth, dealing with the cryptogamic plants, and by various hands, was issued in 1873.

After discontinuing the issue of 'Bonplandia' in 1862, Seemann in 1863 began the publication of the 'Journal of Botany, British and Foreign;' from 1869 Dr. Henry Trimen and Mr. J. G. Baker were associated with him in the editorship. In 1864 some French and Dutch capitalists sent him to Venezuela to report on its resources. Near the Tocuyo he discovered a valuable bed of anthracite. From March to August 1866, and during 1867, he accompanied Captain Bedford Pim to Nicaragua. Seemann's letters to the 'Athenaeum' and to the 'Panama Star and Herald' were reprinted in 1869 as 'Dottings on the Roadside in Panama, Nicaragua, and Mosquito.' One result of these journeys was the purchase by English capitalists of the Javali gold mine, Chontales, Nicaragua, of which Seemann was appointed managing director. He had also the management of a large sugar estate near Panama. The climate ruined his health, and he died at Javali of fever on 10 Oct. 1871. Seemann married an Englishwoman, who predeceased him, leaving one daughter.

He became a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1852, and was a vice-president of the Anthropological Society and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In botany he made a special study of Camellia and Thea, of which he published a synopsis in the Linnean 'Transactions' (vol. xxii.), and of the ivy family, his account of which was reprinted from the 'Journal of Botany' in 1868. He introduced into cultivation the cannibal tomato, eaten with human flesh in the Fiji Islands, the candle-tree (Parmentiera cerifera), and several handsome species of palm. Regel dedicated to him the genus Seemannia, gesnerads, natives of the Andes.

Besides the botanical works and books of travels already mentioned, Seemann was author of the following scientific treatises: 1. 'Die Volksnamen der amerikanischen Pflanzen,' Hanover, 1851, 8vo. 2. 'Die in Europa eingefuhrten Acacien,' Hanover, 1852, 8vo. 3. 'Popular History of the Palms,' London, 1856, 8vo. 4. 'The British Ferns at one View,' with illustrations by W. Fitch, London, 1860, 8vo. 5. 'Hannoversche Sitten und Gebrauche in ihrer Beziehung zur Pflanzenwelt,' Leipzig, 1862, 16mo. 6. 'Revision of the Natural Order Hederaceae,' London, 1868, 8vo. He also wrote descriptions in English and German of the 84 Coloured Plates of Endlicher's 'Paradisus Vindobonensis,' 1858, folio, and translated from the German descriptions of 'Twenty-four Views of the Vegetation of the Coasts of the Pacific,' by F. H. von Kittlitz, 1861, 8vo. He wrote prefaces to I. J. Benjamin's 'Acht Jahre in Asien und Afrika,' 1858, to W. T. Pritchard's 'Polynesian Reminiscences,' 1866, and to Lindley and Moore's 'Treasury of Botany,' 1865.

Seemann, who displayed remarkable versatility, wrote numerous articles in periodicals in English, German, and other languages. He was also a musical composer, and was author of three short German plays which enjoyed popularity in Hanover. Their titles ran: 'Wahl macht Qual,' Hanover, 1867, 8vo; 'Der Wohlthater wider Willen,' Hanover, 1867, 8vo; and 'Die gelben Rosen,' Hanover, 1867, 8vo.

[There is a lithographic portrait of him in the Journal of Botany for 1872; Gardeners' Chronicle, 1871, p. 1678; Proceedings of the Linnean Society, 1871-2, p. lxxiv; Edwards's Photographic Portraits of Men of Eminence, 1866; Appleton's American Dictionary.]


George Simonds Boulger, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 51. pgs. 194-195.

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