George Engelmann, a German-American physician and botanist, was born Feb. 2, 1809 (that was just 10 days before Charles Darwin–and Abraham Lincoln). Engelmann set up practice in St. Louis, and did quite well at it, so that he could indulge his other great interest, which was botany. He became America’s greatest authority on cacti, and when the western surveys made it into cactus country in the 1850s, it was Engelmann who was called upon to describe the succulents. In 1859, he published the section on cactuses in William Emory’s Report on the United States and Mexican boundary survey (1857-59), and soon the cactus section was published separately. It is best known for the first plate, which shows towering saguaro cacti along the Gila River in New Mexico (first image), but the many engravings of cacti in the Report (second and third images) are impressive as well.

Engelmann was also instrumental in helping set up the Missouri Botanical Garden back in the 1850s. When Henry Shaw wanted to establish a botanical garden in St. Louis, he called upon William Hooker at the Kew Gardens in England, and Hooker advised him to consult Engelmann, right there in his own home town. Engelmann then recommended Asa Gray at Harvard, and this triumvirate–Hooker, Engelmann, and Gray–gave Shaw just the advice he needed, so that instead of a pleasure garden, St. Louis ended up with one of the finest research gardens in the United States, which nevertheless, also manages to bring a great deal of pleasure to everyone who goes there, professional botanist or flower lover. Engelmann was also an expert on Missouri wine grapes and played an important role in supplying France with American grape root stock when French vines were attacked by a root aphid, Phylloxera, in the late 1860s. The efforts of Engelmann and a number of others saved the French wine industry from disaster.

There is a bronze bust of Engelmann in the Missouri Botanical Garden (fourth image) and a blue plaque in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin (fifth image).

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.