Rumphius (Georg Eberhard Rumpf) (1628 - 1702)

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Although he is now almost forgotten, Rumpf (Rumphius is the Latin form, which was in those days interchangeable) was one of the great tropical naturalists of the seventeenth century - a century and a half before Darwin.

German by birth, he entered the service of the the military branch of the Dutch East India Company and was sent to the island of Ambon, in what was then the Dutch East Indies in 1653, and remained there for the rest of his life. On his arrival he began studying, as a hobby, the local flora and fauna, eventually exchanging his military assignment for a civilian one. He spent the next thirty years writing a twelve-volume book on the natural history of the region, but died before it was published, after encountering a series of disasters.

The first of these, in 1670, at the age of 42, was blindness, attributed to overwork in the dim light of lamps and candles, but now thought to be the result of glaucoma. He worked on doggedly, and after another twelve years of "sad darkness", he finished the manuscript. He relied on scribes and a variety of artists to produce manuscripts which are said to be marvellously detailed, as he had a prodigious visual memory and a gift for striking descriptions. His greatest work was the Herbarium Amboinense, consisting of 1,661 folio pages and 695 plates. Rumphius also produced the The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet, describing hard and soft shellfish, rocks, minerals and fossils.

Only four years later, in 1674, came another disaster when he lost his wife and one of his daughters in an earthquake.

The next disaster was in 1686, when he sent his vast manuscript - representing more than thirty years work, to Holland to be printed. The Dutch vessel that carried it was attacked and sunk by the French, and the manuscript was lost. With the aid of his surviving daughters, Rumphius set to work to rewrite it.

Yet another disaster: a fire swept the Dutch quarters in 1687, and all his pre-blindness drawings were destroyed.

Finally, all twelve volumes were safely received by the Directors of the Dutch East India Company during the 1690's. They were reluctant to undertake the expense of publication, and after several more years of delay and frustration Rumphius died in 1702 without knowing whether his life's work would ever be published. In fact it was not until 1741 that the Dutch botanist Johannes Burmann edited and published the whole twelve volumes.

Although by then Linnaeus had reaped the credit for the first descriptions of many of Rumphius' plants, the Herbarium Amboinense was considered one of the most remarkable books of its time. More than seventeen hundred plants were described and 1060 illustrated. In 1999 the first English translation of The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet was published:.

His name is honoured today in the epithets of many plants, including Caryota_rumphiana, Licuala_rumphii, Calamus_rumphii and Cycas_rumphii.

Contributed by:

Ian Edwards

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