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The influence of a German botanist on studies at Kew

Tavian Hunter
19 May 2014
Graduate trainee Tavian Hunter sheds light on Kew's links with German botany before the Great War.

This August we will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. As I am aware that a number of Kew staff were actively involved in the war, I was curious to investigate Kew’s links with Germany in terms of plant science before the war broke out. As part of this research I came across the name of the German botanist, Carl Ignaz Leopold Kny (1841-1916).


Black and white portrait of German botanist, Carl Ignaz Leopold Kny
Portrait of C. I. L. Kny (Source: Acta horti bergiani, Bd 3 No 1-2, 1903, tafeln 26. From Wikipedia)

Kny specialised in researching the form and structure of cryptogams (fungi, mosses, lichens, ferns and algae) and became the Professor of Botany at the University of Berlin and the Director of its Institute of Plant Physiology in 1873. Over the period 1871 to 1892, five letters in the Kew Archives addressed to Joseph Hooker, Kew’s second Director, describe the events in which the first set of plates from his most famous work, Botanische Wandtafeln (‘botanical wall charts’), were sent to Kew.

Hung in the former Museum No. 2 (now the School of Horticulture) until the 1960s, this series of wall charts provided high levels of detail about the cell structure and development of plants, which changed the way botanical literature was taught in German universities. With a further three purchases of the series by Kew in 1895, 1909 and 1911, Kew’s School of Horticulture also adopted the idea of teaching visual plant representation in classrooms when training young horticultural students on the ‘Kew Diploma’ course.


Photo of a letter from Kny to Hooker
. Kny correspondence with J. D. Hooker (1871-1892). DC 139 German Letters A-K, f. 600-665.

The correspondence brings out the close relationship between Leopold Kny and Joseph Hooker, with Kny confessing he needs assistance from Hooker to increase the results from his slow research. He is then sent the young buds of Hymenophylleae (a tribe of ferns) in a spirit of wine and, in return, Kew received the first drawing on the anatomy of plants, which 'were to be published as a means of demonstration for lectures'. The dedication to 'Sir Joseph Hooker with the author’s kind regards' can be seen on part. vi of his publication, Botanische Wandtafeln mit Erlauterndem text von L. Kny, which gives explanatory functions of plants and can be seen in the main library.


Photo of Kny wall charts
Examples of wall charts from Botanische Wandtafeln mit Erlauterndem text von L. Kny

The letters reveal a deep friendship and trust between Kny and Hooker. They contain intimate details about Kny’s ailing father-in-law, talk of a student’s paper on Hepaticae (liverworts), and regularly enclosed research papers to Kew. In Kny’s last letter, dated December 1892, he places emphasis on the value of Kew’s expertise in plant identification, describing Kew’s specimens as 'well determined'.

However, with the death of Hooker in 1911 and the onset of the First World War, it is clear that Kew’s professional relationship with Kny and other German botanists was adversely affected, with international collaborations being temporarily discontinued. Nonetheless, it is important to highlight that pre-1914 German science increased Kew’s focus on physiological botany and scientific research in this area right through to the present day.

To find out many other fascinating stories from our rich collections about Kew and its staff, during and after the First World War, we invite you to explore our Commemorative Exhibition, Plants, People and the Products of War: a Centenary Tribute at the Library Open Day on Saturday 5 July 2014, from 10am to 4pm in the Library Reading Room.

Apart from the open day, the exhibition will run daily from 1 July to 30 August, and be free to view by appointment, Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm, excluding bank holidays. Appointments can be made by contacting the library enquiry desk on 020 8332 5414 or by emailing

- Tavian -


  • Curating science in an age of empire: Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany by Caroline Cornish. Surrey : Royal Holloway, University of London, 2013.
  • Botanische Wandtafeln mit Erlauterndem text von L. Kny. Abteilungen I.-XIII by L. Kny. Berlin :Parey, 1874-1911.

Directors' Correspondence digitisation

Although the German Directors’ Correspondence is currently not available online, other areas of the collection have now been digitised as part of the Directors’ Correspondence digitisation project. For further information about this project and for details of the current display in the Library Reading Room see the recent blog post, Digitisation of the North American Directors' Correspondence collection reaches completion.

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