Barthélemy Charles Joseph Dumortier

Barthélemy Charles Joseph Dumortier

Dumortier was born in Tournai in 1797. In the early 1820’s, Dumortier published his first contribution to botany, in Latin. His main purpose was to release a complete national flora. In 1827, he published the Flora Belgica which, by the way, supported natural classification instead of a purely Linnean one. Dumortier focused on systematics quite early on and even designed his own system. It has been said that, in the same decade, he was the first to observe reproduction by cell division.

In 1829 Dumortier became a member of the Académie de Bruxelles, a very sought-after distinction and was already regarded as one the greatest naturalists of the Low-Countries. He not only studied botany but also zoology for he had a special interest in invertebrates, too.

He got involved in the Belgian national revolution (1830) and became a member of its new Parliament as soon as 1831. His scientific activities seemed to decline a bit as a consequence, but his influence was still important in the Belgian scientific milieu. His reputation as a botanist was so brilliant that the Home Office asked him to be its representative in the Brussels’ Botanic Garden, then a joint stock company, supported by the State though in 1837. In 1862, when the Société Royale de Botanique de Belgique was created, Dumortier was immediately requested to become the chairman of it. He was both a protector and some kind of a mentor for all the young botanists who gathered in that new group. Also, Crépin two years earlier had dedicated the first edition of his masterpiece: La Flore de Belgique (1860) to Dumortier. Both facts illustrates the influence and aura of the old botanist from Tournai.

As the company that ran the Brussels’ botanic garden was taking its last gasps, Dumortier brewed the idea of creating a real state botanic garden in the capital. That is why he urged the Parliaments to buy the impressive herbarium and dried collections of the late Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius. It was done in 1869, some months before the Brussels’ botanic garden was, in its turn, bought to the shareholders of the Société Royale d’Horticulture de Belgique. Dumortier wanted to create a botanic garden whose role model was the Royal Kew Gardens, mostly dedicated to taxonomy.

In the new institution, Dumortier dominated without any consideration for anyones opinions and feelings. He ruled as a dictator, being in charge of the board. This provoked huge stresses and almost threatened the institution’s future. But Dumortier had strong political support and won most of the time. He was only kind of defeated when the Home Office decided to lump together the Museum of Natural History and State botanic garden in 1875. The director of both institution became Edouard Dupont, arch-enemy of Dumortier, who was maintained in the role of Scientific Director of the botanic garden only.

However, Dupont disagreeded with the Home Office, and resigned in 1876, and François Crépin became the new director the very same year. For less than a year, Belgium had created a scientific institution that looked rather like the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, dedicated to natural sciences in general, rather than to the original British model of Kew. Dumortier’s legacy to botany includes excellent studies in Bryology, the creation of the State Botanic Garden and the acquisition by Belgium of the Herbarium von Martius, to name but a few. That huge collection was the basis of the famous Flora Brasiliensis that would come to an end in 1906. Thanks to the herbarium, the botanic garden gave Alfred Cogniaux and Elie Marchal, both botanists of the very same institution, the opportunity to collaborate to a huge international scientific project. Moreover, the Herbarium von Martius, as with the collections of Galeotti, Nyst and Claussen, gave Belgian botanic garden the basic material it needed to start in life and to compete with older counterparts.

Hemerocallis dumortierii (Hemerocallidaceae) and Stenocereus dumortieri (Cactaceae) are named after him.

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