By Bernard Verdcourt
Georg-Ludwig August Volkens, born in Berlin on 13 July 1855, was one of those people thoughtful enough to prepare their own obituary. A glance through E. von Martens’s great work on East African molluscs will show how numerous and important Volkens’s collections were. Hans Jacob Volkens, his father, who was a master tinsmith, came from Holstein and died of cholera in September in the year of Georg’s birth. His mother, Auguste Lubrich, married a second tinsmith, Adolf Koeppe, who brought up Georg and his brother. After preliminary schooling at the Royal Seminar School and the Dorotheen-städtische Realgymnasium in Berlin he passed his Abiturienten-Examen (approximate A-levels) at Easter 1875.
Interested in botany from his early days he studied Natural Sciences first in Berlin, then Wurzburg and finally again in Berlin; among his teachers were Alexander Braun (1805–77) and Julius Sachs (1832–97) who greatly influenced his modes of thought and laid the basis for much of his knowledge. After completing his National Service he began preparing for his teacher’s examination. His stepfather died in 1882 and he began his study of botany the same year, his professors being Eichier and Schwendener. His dissertation gained him a degree at Berlin University in autumn 1882; it concerned liquid water loss from the leaves of higher plants. Under the guidance of Schwendener he produced two more papers, one on the relationship between the habitat and the structure of plants, and the other on chalk glands in the Plumbaginaceae, both published in 1884.
From childhood he had a longing to see distant lands and a particular interest in Africa was aroused after reading the travel books of first Barth, Overweg and Livingstone and later those of Schweinfurth, Nachtigal and others. His teacher Schwendener had mentioned that one should study the relationship between habitat and structure in a country with climatic extremes. He asked the Akademie der Wissenschaften to fund a journey to the Egyptian Arabian Desert and with Schwendener’s help he obtained 5000 marks and left in autumn 1884 for 10 months. The results of his work were published in a preliminary paper in 1886 and a successful book in 1887 containing his anatomical and physiological remarks which started what was a new discipline and a new type of ecological literature.
Volkens applied for venia legendi (authorisation to teach) in Berlin University starting in winter 1887 and it was necessary for him to earn his own living, but he had no success looking for research or teaching posts due to a surfeit of young botanists! After the death of Eichler, Adolf Engler (one of the most famous systematic botanists who has ever lived) took over the Botanical Museum in Berlin and gave Volkens a job as an unpaid volunteer. He obtained his qualification as a systematic botanist by compiling two families for the monumental Natürlichen Pflanzen-familien of Engler and Prantl. I had always assumed that Volkens was a permanent worker in the Berlin Herbarium and was a systematist at heart, but I was shocked to find that he did not like taxonomy and had a very sour view of the botanists who sat looking at dried plants and wrote dry descriptions in Latin. He was more interested in anatomy and physiology but with hindsight his work in this field was far less important than his collecting of dried plants and animals.
His important expedition to Mt Kilimanjaro was prompted by the desire to study the temperature factor in relation to the structure of plants, but the collection of plants and animals he made has had far more scientific impact than his rather naive physiological investigations. He managed to fund this expedition with money from the Humboldt Fund of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences and additional funds from the Colonial department provided he kept his eyes open for useful products likely to be of value to the German economy. Volkens spent about a year and a quarter in the region and set up a scientific station; he was the first person to visit the northern slopes, which are still producing undescribed species. Two colleagues who had been with him and remained after he had left, Dr Carl Lent and Dr Kretschmer, were later murdered by natives in the Rombo area. The 3000 or so plant specimens he collected added a great deal to the knowledge of East Africa botany and numerous new species were described from his material. Unfortunately, the top set was, except for a relatively few families, destroyed in the bombing of Berlin during the Second World War but many duplicates are preserved at Kew, the Natural History Museum, and several other institutions. His zoological specimens survived the war. His book Der Kilimandscharo, published in 1897, does not appear to have been translated into English.
It was inevitable that he should be drawn into the social circle in Berlin formed of those whose main interest was fostering colonialism. He took part in the foundation of the Berlin-Charlottenburg Chapter of the German Colonial Society. He was invited to join the committee and gave talks in many German towns which were refreshingly different, being given by an objective natural historian rather than the usual dreary military man. He poured scorn on those who thought that riches could be gained from the colonies without work and investment. How right he was! Two of his talks of a more scientific nature, his work on Kilimanjaro and its possible importance for horticulture, and the pollination of Loranthaceae and Proteaceae by birds, were published in a Festschrift für Schwendener.
At the age of 42 in 1897 he was finally made scientific assistant and a year later Kustos in the Berlin Botanical Museum – a permanent post at last, mainly concerned with economic plants, transferring crops from one colony to another and selecting those most likely to supply Germany with raw materials, and also training gardeners for the Colonial service (much as Kew did). This kind of work prevented him following up his own ideas and he would certainly have been happier (but perhaps less useful) as a researcher in a university environment. Exactly as at Kew, vast collections of new plants were arriving from the tropics, all needing description. The flow from the colonies, later independent countries, lasted at least another 60 years or more and is scarcely finished even now. Volkens would certainly have been concerned with the research stations which were set up at Rabaul (New Britain, then Neu-Pommern and much later destroyed first by an earthquake then by the Japanese), Victoria (Cameroon) and Amani (Deutsch-Ost-Afrika, later Tanganyika and now Tanzania). In the short time they had before the First World War resulted in the loss of all Germany’s overseas possessions, an immense amount of practical tropical agriculture was carried out.
In July 1899 whilst on holiday in Rügen he received a telegram to return to Berlin and only four days later was on his way to Genoa to board a boat for the Caroline Islands. These had been bought from Spain and a ceremonial party with new officials was underway to exchange flags, make speeches, etc. Volkens was included in order to report on the economic conditions of the then little known islands. Singapore was visited to buy all that was needed to set up offices in Ponape and Saipan, then Macassar, Amboina, Banda Islands, and Friedrich Wilhemshafen in New Guinea; they finally arrived at Herbertshöhe on the Gazelle Peninsula. From there, under the direction of the Governor of German New Guinea, the party visited the Marshall Islands, before arriving at the Marianas and Carolines (Kussae, Ponape, Palaus, Saipan and Yap – all parts of the very scattered chain). Volkens stayed on Yap for seven months due to lack of shipping and finally got rescued by a small sailing boat which reached Yokohama on 25 June 1900. All military ships that might have been expected to rescue the German party had been diverted to China because of the Boxer rebellion and events in Samoa; Volkens was totally forgotten. He had one narrow escape whilst on Yap. During an excursion to the southern point of Yap his boat hit the reef and overturned; he and the District Governor hung on to the keel within sight of the surf for four hours until finally rescued by natives who told them they only travelled that way twice a year!
He got back to Berlin in October 1900 only to learn he should have been in Java. A telegram ordering him to go there had never reached him. He requested a year’s postponement and finally went to Java in autumn 1901 staying there until August 1902. The idea was to distribute plants from the magnificent botanical garden at Buitenzorg (Bogor). Despite the loss of much material enough survived to greatly enrich the agriculture of Africa, New Guinea, Samoa and the Carolines for future generations. Volkens also sent 27 crates of ethnographic objects of all kinds to the Ethnography Museum in Berlin, also a small but very important mineralogical collection which changed the accepted ideas on the formation of the Caroline Islands. I do not know if he collected any snails during his trips to the Pacific and Java but none is mentioned in H.B. Baker’s Zonitid Snails from Pacific Islands (1938-41).
His desire for foreign travel was now satiated and he settled down to work again at Botanical Central Office. He gradually gave up teaching and had abandoned it by 1910.
Volkens never married; when he was in a position to start a household he considered himself too old. Thus he had time to devote to other things and played an important role in many societies and in public discussions. He was a member of all four societies in Berlin concerned with botany and also those devoted to geography, Asian affairs, the Colonial Society, the Society of Naturalists, the Meteorological Society and the Gymnastic Society. He was for many years on the Committee of the Botanischen Vereins der Provinz Brandenburg and also wrote a history of this Association on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. In August 1912 he suddenly had signs of arterial sclerosis and he died on 10 January 1917 from a heart attack at a relatively early age.
Four plant genera are named after him, only one still accepted, Volkensia 0. Hoffm. (Compositae) (= Bothriocline Benth.), Volkensiella H. Wolff (Umbelliferae) (= Oenanthe L.), Volkensinia Schinz (Amaranthaceae) and Volkensiophyton G. Lindau (Acanthaceae) (= Lepidagathis Willd.). Over 100 species of plants and animals (beetles, Orthoptera and molluscs) are also named after him. He was the author of 52 scientific papers including his book on Kilimanjaro.
The great botanist H. Harms added notes and an addition to Volkens’s obituary with details of where information can be found and a complete bibliography. He is also critical of Volkens’s attitude towards systematic botany stating that he never really understood the tasks and aims of the subject and the scientific uses of the collections. This may be so but his excellent collection from Kilimanjaro added a great deal to our knowledge of the mountain and his work there and what remains of his collections will always be important.
A complete copy of the lengthy translated obituary has been put in the biographical pamphlet collection in the library at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and is available there. I am deeply grateful to Monica Shaffer-Fehre for translating it slowly enough for me to write down the main points of interest.
List of molluscs described from material collected by G. Volkens and associate (Volkens unless otherwise stated)
Achatina fulica bloyeti Bgt.
Pila wernei (Phil.).
Maizania (Micromaizania) volkensi (von Mts.).
Gulella tudes (von Mts.).
Curvella kretschmeri (von Mts.) (but my notes made in Berlin in 1959 suggest it is anOpeas or Euonyma).
Chlamydarion volkensi (Thiele).
Haplohelix kilmae (von Mts.).
Limicolaria martensiana volkensi von Mts.
Polytoxon robustum (Simroth).
Haplohelix rufofusca (von Mts.).
Trochonanina (Montanobloyetia) simulans simulans von Mts.
Trochonanina (Montanobloyetia) simulans simulans von Mts.
Same (the lectotypification of this must await a complete revision of African Vitrinidae; D’Ailly (1910) described three other species from the mountain.)