The Savior of French Wine
January 29, 1879
On this day, the physician and botanist George Engelmann lost his wife, Dorothea.
Dorothea was also his cousin, and the couple married in their native Germany before immigrating to the United States. Engelmann had settled in St Louis, Missouri. George and Dorothea had one son, George Jr - who became a noted gynecologist.
George persuaded Henry Shaw to develop the gardens around his estate outside of St Louis. When Asa Gray indicated that he thought Engelmann should run Shaw’s garden, Engelmann replied that he wasn't interested; Shaw was a man who had “no real scientific zeal.”
Yet, Engelmann continued to interact with Shaw, and he encouraged him to name his garden the Missouri Botanical Garden. Today, the Missouri Botanical Garden is sometimes still referred to as Shaw's Garden. George Engelmann became the Missouri Botanical Garden’s first botanist.
Among his many accomplishments as a botanist, at the top of the list is George rescuing the French wine industry. During the 1870s, the grapes in French Vineyards were under attack by phylloxera. Without intervention, the old European vines would never survive the little aphid-like pest that sucked the sap out of the grapevines' roots.
By the time the French government dispatched a scientist to St. Louis, Engelmann had studied grapes for over 20 years. Engelmann offered a simple solution when he suggested replacing the European vines with American ones. Engelmann had already determined that the American vines were naturally resistant to phylloxera. The simple substitution of vines would eliminate the problem. Both sides agreed, and George personally arranged for millions of grapevines and grape seeds to be sent to France. And voila! The French wine industry was saved.
As a person, George was quite cheerful and always working - either as a physician or pursuing his botanical and other scientific work. But, after Dorothea died on this day in 1879, George was distraught. Dorothea had been his partner in all of his endeavors - she was his sounding board, editor, and chief encourager.
George threw himself into his botanical work, but he could find no relief from his grief by himself. George’s way back to life came when an invitation arrived from a friend and colleague. Harvard's Charles Sprague Sargent requested that George join him on an assessment of the Pacific Coast forests on behalf of the Forestry Division of the United States Census. George was Charles’s top choice; he had long admired George’s mastery of trees. By the summer of 1880, George Engelmann was 71 years old. Life wasn’t done with him yet.
George met up with Charles in Ogden, Utah. Along with botanist Christopher Charles Parry, they spent 1880 botanizing along the west coast from the Fraser River in British Columbia to southern Arizona along the Mexican border.
George's death came four years later. He’d caught a cold after he was clearing a path through the snow from his house to his garden so that he could read his thermometers. George had faithfully kept an unbroken record of daily meteorological observations for nearly five decades. It was important to him. He recorded the daily, monthly, seasonal, and annual records of temperature, rainfall, and other weather notes.
A prolific letter-writer, George’s last letter, was to Charles Christopher Parry, who had accompanied George and Sargent on their botanizing trip on the west coast.
Parry was a true friend and had named the Englemann Spruce in honor of George. In a tribute to George after his death, Charles Sprague Sargent wrote,
“… that splendid spruce [the Engelmann Spruce], the fairest of them all, will [forever]...cover the noble forests and the highest slopes of the mountains, recalling … the memory of a pure, upright, and laborious life.”
Today, George’s portrait is featured in a couple of different places at the Missouri Botanical Garden, where his astounding collection of over 98,000 botanical specimens helped establish the Missouri Botanical Garden’s herbarium.
If you ever visit the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Sachs Museum, you’ll note that the only plant identified (with a label) is named for George Engelmann - it’s the Opuntia engelmannii or Engelmann's prickly pear cactus. There is also a large bust of Engelmann in the Strassenfest Garden.
Today, Engelmann’s botanical notebooks are being digitized online as part of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.