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  Otto Kuntze
1843 - 1907

Carl Ernst Otto Kuntze, botanist and world traveler, was born on June 23, 1843 in Leipzig, Germany, where he was educated in both a Realschule and a commercial school. His interest in botany began in his youth, and before he left Leipzig, he had collected most of the species of plants of that area. Later, he was able to publish descriptions of these plants in Taschen-Flora von Leipzig (1867).

At that time, Kuntze held a clerk’s job in a Berlin business, but spent most of his spare time in botanical excursions in the Berlin region; often, his companions on these trips were the established Berlin botanists, Alexander Braun (1805-1877) and Paul Ascherson (1834-1913). One result of his plant collecting was the publication, in 1867, of a small work on the genus Rubus-Reform deutscher Brombeeren.

A year later, Kuntze was back in Leipzig where he started a factory for the manufacture of volatile oils and essences which became so successful that he made a fortune and retired after just five years in the chemical manufacturing business. He easily made the decision to spend the rest of his life in the study of the natural sciences, and began his new life with a world tour which lasted from 1874 to 1876. In the course of his travels, he visited the West Indies, parts of South America, fourteen of the United States, Japan, China, Southeast Asia, and India, and returned to Europe by way of the Suez Canal. During this two year experience, Kuntze made large ethnological collections which were given to the Völkermuseum in Leipzig, and he also assembled a collection of 7700 dried plant specimens. His account of his journey was published in the book Um die Erde in 1881.

Kuntze had never had any formal training in science, but he now became a student and attended the universities at Berlin, Leipzig, and Freiburg im Breisgau, receiving a doctorate from the latter in June, 1878. His dissertation was published as Monographie der Gattung Cinchona L. The next year, Kuntze began to formulate his ideas on systematic botany, and he thus initiated those aspects of his work which would become not only controversial, but highly irritating to a large number of his fellow botanists. The beginnings were in his second monograph on Rubus (Methodik der Speciesbeschreibung und Rubus: 1879). In this work, he presented a theoretical outline of how species should be described, basing it on his knowledge of the genus Rubus.

The large botanical collections which Kuntze had accumulated during the years 1874 to 1876 had never been thoroughly examined, so he spent the six years from 1884 in organizing and describing them. The results were published in two volumes -- Revisio generum plantarum (1891), and immediately raised a storm for Kuntze had changed the names of thousands of plants. The changes were not only of the plants in his collections, but, "it was virtually a revision of the names of all known flowering plants". The book reflected, in a revolutionary, challenging way, Kuntze’s strong opposition to the then current rules of botanical nomenclature, rules which had been established at the International Botanical Congress held in Paris in 1867. He insisted on the use of many generic names which predated Linnaeus’ Species plantarum of 1753, and claimed that many plants were wrongly named as the result of informal mutual agreements based on unwritten rules. The third volume of the Revisio, which was published in three parts, 1893 and 1898, was based on new collections which he had made on a South American trip taken in the years 1891 to 1893. It included a discussion of the overall problems of botanical nomenclature, and proposed many additional name changes.

Among botanists, the reactions varied from tentative agreement on certain points to angry objections to the whole Kuntze system. The author himself was guilty of published personal attacks on his critics, especially when he realized that the majority of botanists would not accept his taxonomic ideas. Eventually, the very real problems in nomenclature which had been raised by Kuntze were settled at the Second International Congress of Botany in Vienna in 1905 and at the Fifth International Congress of Botany in Cambridge in 1930. Kuntze himself appeared at the Vienna meeting, but only to denounce and question the authority of the Congress to legislate in matters of botanical nomenclature.

Kuntze spent the last years of his life in travel, in expanding his herbarium, and in writing. He had moved to San Remo, Italy, in the winter of 1895-96, and it was there that he kept his library and herbarium. He had traveled to South America in 1891-1893, and to southern Africa in 1894, but a much more ambitious trip was his second voyage around the world in 1904, when he visited Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon, Samoa, Hawaii, and the United States. After the 1905 Congress, his health declined, and he died at San Remo in 1907.

Carl E. O. Kuntze has been described as a "polemic nomenclatural reformer" and "the stormy petrel of nomenclature", and the controversies which surrounded him caused his contemporaries to overlook his real contributions. It should be recognized that he compelled botanists to address and solve many unanswered problems in nomenclature, and that he was the author of many significant botanical publications.


John Hendley Barnhart, "Otto Kuntze". Bulletin of the Charleston Museum. v. 9:65-68. 1913.

W. B. Hemsley, "Dr. Otto Kuntze". Kew Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, 1907:100-101.

Frans A. Stafleu, "Kuntze, Carl Ernst Otto". Dictionary of Scientific Biography, v. 15:268-269. 1978.

Luwig Wittmack, "Die Reisen Otto Kuntzes und seine Ansichten über die Wanderung der Bananen". Gartenflora, v. 55:232-234. 1906.

Robert F. Erickson. 

Digitized Works:
Revisio generum plantarum vasculariumauthor
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