Fritz Müller bigraphy, stories - German biologist

Fritz Müller : biography

31 March 1821 - 21 May 1897

Johann Friedrich Theodor Müller (31 March 1821 – 21 May 1897), better known as Fritz Müller, and also as Müller-Desterro, was a German biologist and physician who emigrated to southern Brazil, where he lived in and near the German community of Blumenau, Santa Catarina. There he studied the natural history of the Atlantic forest south of São Paulo, and was an early advocate of Darwinism. He lived in Brazil for the rest of his life. Müllerian mimicry is named after him.West, David A. 2003. Fritz Müller: a naturalist in Brazil. Blacksburg: Pocahontas Press.


Müller was born in the village of Windischholzhausen, near Erfurt in Thuringia, Germany, the son of a minister. Unlike most of his contemporaries in Britain, Müller had what would be seen today as a normal scientific education at the universities of Berlin and Greifswald, culminating in a doctoral degree. Then, he decided to study medicine. As a medical student, he began to question religion and in 1846 became an atheist, joining the Free Congregations and supporting free love. Despite completing the course, he did not graduate because he refused to swear the graduation oath, which contained the phrase "so help me God and his sacred Gospel".

It is of some historical interest that Müller's formal education should be so extensive, whereas his British equivalents seldom gained the same kind of qualification. Darwin had an MA, but Faraday, Huxley, Wallace and Bates were autodidacts who had no university degrees at all. Not until Huxley—a great Germanophile—engineered a change in British attitudes to science were nascent British scientists able to get appropriate education.

Müller was disappointed by the failure of the Prussian Revolution in 1848, and realised there might be implications for his life and career. As a result, he emigrated to South Brazil in 1852, with his brother August and their wives, to join Hermann Blumenau's new colony in the State of Santa Catarina. The colony, near the coast on the Itajaí River, was called Blumenau. In Brazil, Müller, living with his wife Caroline, became a farmer, doctor, teacher and biologist, sometimes employed by the provincial government, sometimes surviving on his own efforts, sometimes defending against Indians but always collecting evidence of life in the Atlantic forest. The climate here is sub-tropical, and the vegetation typical of the Brazilian coast: it is not rain forest.

Müller gained an official teaching post, and spent a decade teaching maths at a college in Desterro on the island of Santa Catarina.Desterro has been replaced by the modern city of Florianópolis (= Floripa), which is on the mainland as well as the Island of Santa Catarina. The island is about 120 miles SE of São Paulo, about 330 miles SE of Rio de Janeiro, and about 300 miles north of Montevideo on the Rio de la Plata.Henry Bates notes the "splendid climate of Desterro" and its links with German settlements. Bates H.W. 1882. Central America, the West Indies and South America. 2nd revised ed., Stanford, London. p 432, 436 and map of the Seaports of Brazil opp p427. Then the college was taken over by the Jesuits, and Müller (though retaining his salary) returned to the Itajaí River valley. He negotiated a menu of botanical activities with the provincial government and spent the next nine years doing botanical research and advising farmers.

In 1876 he was appointed as Travelling Naturalist to the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. This was the ideal post for him: it gave him the opportunity to range over the whole of the Itajaí system and study anything that interested him. A series of reports published in the Archivos of the National Museum record this work. He was a contemporary of several other foreign naturalists who were invited to work there by the Director of the National Museum, Ladislau Netto, such as Émil Goeldi and Hermann von Ihering.

At last this, the best period of his life, was brought to an end indirectly, by the overthrow of the liberal monarchy of Dom Pedro II in 1889. The new Brazilian Republic was riddled with corruption and nepotism, and eventually there was a civil war in 1893-5. One of the mistakes made by the Republic was to withdraw support from the regions, no doubt to make sure resources went to the new rulers and their families. Travelling naturalists were to be based in Rio de Janeiro, and instructions were sent out to the regions. Müller refused point-blank and was dismissed, as was von Ihering in São Paulo.

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