George Engelmann

George Engelmann bigraphy, stories - German-born United States botanist

George Engelmann : biography

2 February 1809 – 4 February 1884

George Engelmann, also known as Georg Engelmann, (2 February 1809 – 4 February 1884) was a German-American botanist. He was instrumental in describing the flora of the west of North America, then very poorly known; he was particularly active in the Rocky Mountains and northern Mexico, one of his constant companions being another German-American, the botanical illustrator Paulus Roetter.




George Engelmann was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, the oldest of thirteen children, nine of whom reached maturity. His father, Julius Bernhardt Engelmann, was a member of a family from which for several successive generations were chosen ministers for the Reformed Church at Bacharach-on-the-Rhine. Julius was a graduate of the University of Halle, and was also educated for the ministry, but he devoted his life to education. He established a school for young women at Frankfort, such as were then little known. George Engelmann’s mother, Julie Antoinette, was the only daughter of Antoinette André and George Oswald May. The latter, in his earlier years, was an artist of note at the Court of Weimar. Julie Antoinette was Julius Engelmann’s coadjutor in the school for young women, and its success was largely due to her management and tact.

His uncle, Friedrich Theodor, a German pioneer of Illinois, was an early American viticulturist.


George Engelmann received his early education at the gymnasium in Frankfurt. According to himself, he first became interested in plants around age 15. At this age, also, his disposition to study was such that he voluntarily devoted much of his time after the performance of his stated school duties to the study of history, modern languages, and drawing.

Assisted by a scholarship founded by the “Reformed Congregation of Frankfort,” in 1827 he began the study of the sciences in the University of Heidelberg, where he met Karl Schimper and Alexander Braun. With the latter especially an intimate friendship and correspondence were preserved unbroken until the death of Braun in 1877. With Schimper also he retained friendship, although that penetrating but erratic genius after obtaining a remarkable grasp of philosophical botany and laying the foundations of phyllotaxy abandoned the subject entirely.

In 1828 young Engelmann’s studies at Heidelberg were interrupted by his having joined the students in a political demonstration. He thereupon left Heidelberg and entered the University of Berlin, where he stayed for two years. In 1831, he received the degree of M.D. from the University of Würzburg.

His dissertation for the medical degree, more related to botany than to medicine, was published at Frankfort in 1832 under the title of De Antholysi Prodromus. It was devoted to morphology — mainly to the structure of monstrosities and aberrant forms of plants — and was illustrated by five plates of figures drawn and transferred to the lithographic stone by the author’s own hand. Its subject was so directly in line with that of a treatise on the metamorphosis of plants by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that it was heartily welcomed by the poet-philosopher, whose own life was then approaching its close. Having received Engelmann’s treatise through his correspondent Marianne von Willemer, Goethe inquired after the young author, saying that Engelmann had completely apprehended Goethe’s ideas concerning vegetable morphology, and had shown a peculiar genius for their development. So strong was his confidence in Engelmann’s ability that he offered to give him his whole store of unpublished notes and sketches.

In 1832 Engelmann went to Paris, where he again became associated with Braun, and also with Louis Agassiz.

Emigration to United States

Wishing to visit America, he accepted a proposition from his uncles to become their agent for the purchase of lands in the United States. In September 1832, he sailed from Bremen for Baltimore, Maryland. In addition to his duties assessing land investment opportunities, he also spent time on botanical travels, first visiting Thomas Nuttall in Philadelphia. He then went to St. Louis, Missouri, and from there around to the adjacent states. He settled with his relatives on a farm in St. Clair County, Illinois near Belleville for three years.