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A sage in the jungle

A century and a half ago, Fritz Müller, one of the world's great naturalists, arrived in Brazil - to stay

Delirious, now close to death, naturalist Fritz Müller would only think of bromeliads. In disconnected phrases, he would dub the species already named, and other to be studied. He would not talk of the crustaceans that helped to firm up the theory of evolution and enchanted Charles Darwin, nor of the butterflies that imitate each other to rid themselves of predators, or of the orchids, all the object of intense observation. At the age of 75, Müller would have febrile deliriums about bromeliads, endowed with a wild beauty that had led him to cultivate them in his large riverside garden in Blumenau. In Europe, it was only possible to see this plant from the Bromeliaceae family in herbariums, as it was exclusive to the American continent (of the over 3,000 species, only one of them inhabits Africa).

The end of the life of this exceptional naturalist is narrated by Moacir Werneck de Castro in his biography O sábio e a floresta ? A extraordinária aventura do alemão Fritz Müller no trópico brasileiro [The sage and the forest – The extraordinary adventure of the German Fritz Müller in the Brazilian tropics] (Editora Rocco, 1992, out of print). Castro shows that the scientist realized his childhood desire of getting to know and of get to know a new land with every kind of animal and plant species, a good part of them not yet known to the specialists. Johann Friedrich Theodor Müller, Fritz Müller’s full name, was born in the central region of present-day Germany, in Turingen. He arrived in the state of Santa Catarina in 1852, with his wife, Karoline, daughter Johanna, and one of his brothers, August, also a married man.

The young Müller imagination has always been excited by the reports of expeditionary naturalist and artists who helped to show the Brazil of the 18th and 19th centuries to the world, like Alexander von Humboldt (whom Müller got to know in Germany), Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, Carl von Martius, Johann Spix, Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, Hermann Burmeister, Peter Wilhelm Lund, Moritz Rugendas, Aimé-Adrien Taunay and Hercule Florence, amongst others. And, of course, Charles Darwin, who hated the slavery then ruling in the country, but marveled at the Brazilian forests. For somebody like Müller, graduated in pharmacy and medicine, with an enormous vocation for naturalism, going to the New World was only a question of time.

Once installed in the colony created in Brazil by his old friend Hermann Blumenau, the German scientist worked hard with his wife and his brother to build their house and to plant their own food. At the same time, he had to educate his daughters personally (he had nine girls and one boy, who lived a few hours), to take precautions against attacks from pumas and Indians, and even so to observe animals and plants, to collect species for study, and to write reports, articles and letters for periodicals abroad and in Brazil.

“He had 248 works published, amongst memories and monographs, in countless of the world’s scientific magazines”, says Paulo Labiak, a professor from the Federal University of Paraná and president of the Mülleriana: Fritz Müller Natural Sciences Society, of Curitiba. “Even for today’s standards, over one century later, with all the graphic and electronic resources available, this production is impressive.” The German naturalist published only one book, Facts and arguments for Darwin, first in Germany (which he never went back to), then in the United Kingdom – it only appeared in Brazil years later. The idea was to give more elements that reinforced the theory on evolution.

The German used crustaceans as a starting point and compared the superior types with the inferior one – he showed that both had passed through the same embryonic form. The book led Müller to a prolific scientific correspondence with the English scientist and with other European ones. Impressed with the quality of the German’s work, Darwin started to call him “the prince of observers”.