Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

Archives Collections List

Franz Carl Mertens (1764–1831)


Botanist, educator, taxonomist

Letterbook and other items, 1797–1829 and n.d.

HI Archives collection no. 54
One box, one volume, one slipcase

Mertens, Franz Carl
Artist: Carl Mertens (FC’s Son)
Printer: C. Hullmandel
HI Archives portrait no. 1

Biographical note
Franz Carl Mertens (1764–1831) was a plant collector, particularly of algae; compiler of a famous herbarium; author of an altered and elaborated edition (1823, 1826, 1831) of Johann Christoph Röhling’s Germany’s Flora; and principal of the College of Commerce, Bremen. 

Mertens was born on 3 April 1764 in Bielefeld and died in Bremen 19 June 1831. His father, Clamor Mertens, was the only son of a distinguished but impoverished noble family. Because there was no money to send Franz Carl to school, he was taught at home by his father, but his mother was determined that Franz Carl would attend classes to prepare him to enter a university. Through her efforts with various city officials, she was able to arrange that Franz Carl take classes with the son of an official. Once given the opportunity, Mertens’ intelligence and industriousness attracted the attention of individuals able to guide and assist him with the financing of his education. He studied theology and languages at the University of Halle and was offered a teaching position at Bremen Polytechnic College. His days were taken up with lessons and preparing class lectures, but he devoted every spare minute to his main interest: the study of botany. Through a friend he met Albrecht Wilhelm Roth (1757–1834), German physician and botanist at Oldenburg. Mertens and Roth went on collecting trips together, and Mertens described a number of algal species and illustrated all of the algae in the third volume of Roth’s Catalecta botanica (1806). Mertens traveled throughout Europe and Scandinavia visiting botanists and gardens.  He exchanged letters and specimens with many notable natural scientists.

Scope and content note
In 1961 Dr. Mildred Mathias (1906–1995), internationally known botanist from the University of California, Los Angeles, learned that the descendants of Franz Carl Mertens, German professor and algologist, lived in Los Angeles and had in their possession a collection of letters that botanists from many nations had written to their great-grandfather. Mrs. Thekla Mertens Widney and Miss E. Carmen Mertens were elderly and wanted to place the letters in a repository where they would be preserved, appreciated and made available to researchers.  When Dr. Mathias saw the collection, she realized its importance to the botanical world and wrote to Dr. George M. Lawrence (1910–1978), the first director of the Hunt Botanical Library, recommending that he examine the collection because “the letters are full of lists of plant names, descriptions, etc., and look like a goldmine of interesting botanical history.” Handling an 1817 letter written by Stephen Elliott or an 1819 letter by Edward Forster, one understands the excitement felt by Dr. Mathias when she first saw the collection at the home of Mertens’ great-granddaughters in 1961.

In April 1962 the Mertens collection was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Roy A. Hunt and deposited in the Archives of the Hunt Botanical Library.

Two hundred sixty-three of Mertens’s letters to other scientists are now in the Hunt Collection.  They are tipped into a bound volume and include letters from Carl Adolphe Agardh, J. B. G. M. Bory de Saint-Vincent, Augustin Pyramus de Candolle, Adelbert von Chamisso, Louis August Deschamps, Rene Louiche Defontaines, Ambrose M. F. J. Palisot de Beauvois, Alexander Postels, Dawson Turner, and many others.

Along with the letterbook, the collection includes: a personal notebook (cover title is Das Blaue Buch) belonging to Professor Mertens with handwritten notes in German on many topics including anecdotes, biographies, quotations, memoranda, and caricature sketches; an ink-wash drawing, signed by Alexander Postels, of the ship Corvette on its circumnavigation of the world in 1829; a sketchbook by Franz Carl Mertens depicting a botanical field trip from Bremen to Bassum, 25 July 1806, and including three separate caricatures Mertens made on the trip; a pen-and-ink sketch of Mertens’ home at Bremen drawn by his son Carl Heinrich Mertens (1796–1830); and a lithograph of Mertens made by his son Carl Heinrich in 1825 and printed by C. Hullmandel. 

Two small volumes complete this collection:

Stachow, C. L. [ca.1840.] Professor Dr. Franz Carl Mertens, Vorstcher der Handelsschule in Bremen. 154 pp. [This German biography is a reprint of pages 239–392 of a rare German work titled Biographische Skizzen verstoibner Bremischer Aerzte.] HI Library call no. LB M575m.

[An English translation of the above volume by Mertens’ great-granddaughters, Carmen Mertens and Thekla Mertens Widney. Los Angeles, 1960. 97 typescript pages.] HI Library call no. LB M575m 960.

Other resources
Individual portraits of this subject are available from the Hunt Institute portrait collection. Thumbnails of the individual portrait holdings are available as a PDF for research purposes. For publication-quality images, contact the Archivist to place an order.

Biographical citations for this subject are available from the Hunt Institute biographical collection as a PDF.

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