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HERMANN BURMEISTER (1807-1892)


Hermann Burmeister studied medicine as a young man but knew from an early age that his real interest in life was natural history. One of his favorite pastimes as a boy growing up in the German city of Stralsund was collecting insects.  After receiving his medical training, he sought a position as an army doctor in the Dutch East Indies, believing that would provide opportunities for pursuing his interest in entomology.  The post never came through, however, and he took a job as a high school teacher in Berlin, where he began work on his first book, Handbuch der Entomologie. Other books followed, and he soon established himself as an authority on natural history.  When his old professor at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, the ornithologist Christian Ludwig Nitzsch, died, in 1837, Burmeister was chosen as his successor.  He also took over the management of the university’s natural history museum, adding his own insect collection to it, as well as bringing in collections assembled by others.

The Revolution of 1848 initially gave Burmeister much hope for Germany’s future, but after serving as a representative in various national assemblies, he grew frustrated with politics and returned to his academic work.  Desperate for a change of scene, he followed through on Alexander von Humboldt’s suggestion that he travel to Brazil on a collecting mission.  The two-year trip turned out to be a great success, despite a badly broken leg that Burmeister suffered falling from his horse. On his return to Halle in the spring of 1852, he brought with him more than eight hundred birds, two hundred bird eggs, eight thousand insects, and a small collection of mammals and amphibians. This material served as the basis for two scientific books, which he published in 1854 and 1856. He also produced a travel account, Reise nach Brasilien (1853), and a book of landscape drawings, which he himself drew.

The political situation in Germany had not improved by the time Burmeister returned from Brazil.  This, together with Humboldt’s continued encouragement and, above all, his own strong desire to go back to South America, resulted in a second journey. After arriving in Rio de Janeiro in November 1856, he turned his attention southward, to Uruguay and Argentina – fresh territory for a scientist. Although Argentina was then in the midst of a civil war, the country’s natural diversity made a deep impression on Burmeister.  Over the course of four years he traveled north at a leisurely pace, from Buenos Aires to Córdoba and Tucumán, across the Andes to Chile, and then to Lima, where he caught a ship bound for Europe. Of the nearly 10,000 animal specimens he collected during that journey, and brought back to Germany, 4,600 were birds (Streicher 1993, 18-32). The number of specimens he gathered on his two trips to South America exceeded 100,000.

Despite his success, upon his return to Germany in 1860 Burmeister felt unappreciated and unfulfilled. German politics still frustrated him, as did changes in the way classes were taught at the university. His marriage had also soured.  After weighing the risks, he decided to make a complete break with Germany, divorcing his wife and then resigning his professorship (Biraben 1968; Mantegari 2006). 

This dramatic course of action was no doubt made easier by an invitation he had received from Argentina’s minister of education and future president, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, to become director of the Museo Público in Buenos Aires. Although undistinguished at the time, the museum had potential in Burmeister’s eyes. He accepted Sarmiento’s offer, moved to Argentina, and in November 1861 took charge of the museum. Over the next thirty years he developed it into one of the finest of its kind in South America.  Its annual journal was first published in 1864 under the title Anales del Museo Público de Buenos Aires. Due to a lack of technical artists in Buenos Aires, Burmeister himself drew some of the journal’s illustrations. Periods of dismal funding made the director’s job a challenge.  So, too, did his irascible, controlling, and at times arrogant personality, which alienated supporters and led to a high rate of staff turnover. He was always willing to sacrifice himself for the museum’s sake, however, and in later years he became more attentive to staff morale. “Rather than reduce anyone’s salary,” one historian has written, “Burmeister suggested that appropriations for collections be cut in half. In addition, he offered to sacrifice his own pay raise so that the amount might go instead towards the purchase of materials” (Sheets-Pyenson 1988, 29, 43, 62-63).

Sarmiento, pleased with Burmeister’s work, called on him to help recruit talented European faculty for the natural history department at the University of Córdoba. Burmeister also helped plan the construction of the first astronomical observatory in Argentina.  He was active at the Museo Público (known after 1884 as the Museo Nacional) almost until the day of his death, in May 1892, which came several weeks after he fell from a ladder at the museum.  So revered had he become in his adopted country that he was honored with a state funeral. The president of Argentina led the mourners in his funeral procession. (Michael Taylor)