Friedrich Martin Josef Welwitsch
|Died||October 20, 1872 (aged 66)|
|Known for||discovery of Welwitschia|
Friedrich Martin Josef Welwitsch (5 February 1806 – 20 October 1872) was an Austrian explorer and botanist who in Angola discovered the plant Welwitschia mirabilis. His report received wide attention among the botanists and general public, comparable only to the discovery of two other plants in the 19th century, namely Victoria amazonica and Rafflesia arnoldii.
In Angola, Welwitsch also discovered Rhipsalis baccifera, the only cactus species naturally occurring outside the New World. It was found a few years later in Sri Lanka too, which reignited the now already one and a half century old debate on the origin of cacti in Africa and Asia. At the time, the debate concluded with the conviction of numerous authors that they were introduced and spread by migratory birds.
Among the botanists, Welwitsch is also known after his descriptions of numerous other plants, for example Cyphostemma macropus, Tavaresia angolense, Dorstenia psilurus, Sarcocaulon mossamedense, Acanthosicyos horridus, Pachypodium namaquanum and Pachypodium lealii. The earthstar fungus Geastrum welwitschii, a species he collected in Spain, is named in his honor.
Friedrich Welwitsch was born at Maria Saal (Slovene: Gospa Sveta), Duchy of Carinthia, Austrian Empire, to the wealthy family of Joseph Anton Welwich, a local judicial officer and town councillor of Salzburg, and Genovefa Mayr. The family name, which in today's Slovene spelling would be Velbič, points at Slovene ethnicity. It is known that Welwitsch's mother was a German, while his father's family was probably of Slovene origin. However, this has not been definitely proven. It is not known whether Welwitsch spoke Slovene although he worked as a physician in a Slovene-speaking environment for two years. This was in Postojna, where he continued to develop his interest in cryptogamic flora.
Contrary to the wishes of his father, who wanted him to study law, Friedrich Welwitsch studied medicine and botany in Vienna and worked as a physician in the Austrian provinces of Carniola and Moravia, but his interest in the plant kingdom, where he discovered a number of plants hitherto unknown, was so great that in 1839 he abandoned the medical profession altogether.
With the financial aid of a Württemberg botanical association Welwitsch travelled to Portugal where he became the director of the botanical gardens. His claim to fame came when with the further support of the Portuguese agent of the Württemberg botanical society  he did research on the Canary Islands, on Madeira, and, in the interest of the Portuguese government, from 1853 in Angola, then a Portuguese colony. There, in 1859, in the Namib Desert in the southern part of Angola he discovered Welwitschia mirabilis, a unique member of the Gnetophyta, also known as Tumboa, with a subterranean stem of 50 cm diameter  that can grow up to 30 meters deep, and with only two leaves of up to 2 m long, the longest-lived leaves (1,500 to 2,000 years) in the plant kingdom. This plant, whose common name is Tree tumbo, a single species of dioecious perennial, is considered a gymnosperm, however, the relationship with other species in this group is still not clear.
After eight strenuous years of exploring and collecting, Welwitsch returned to Portugal in 1861. Because of better working conditions, he went to London in 1863. There, he worked at first at the Natural History Museum and later at the Kew Gardens, categorising and cataloguing its enormous collection. Only in the publication Sertum Angolense, he described 12 new categories and 48 new species. He left his precious collection to the London Natural History Museum. However, having financed his Angolan years, the Portuguese government claimed the estate. The case was settled only after a three-year suit: one series of his collection went to Lisbon, the second remained in London. Welwitsch was buried in the Kensal Green Cemetery where the slab over his grave reads: "Frederikus Welwitsch, M.D. - Florae angolensis investigatorum princeps - Nat. in Carinthia 5 Feb 1806 - Ob. Londini 20 Oct 1872".
Welwitsch is commemorated in the scientific name of a species of Angolan amphisbaenian, Dalophia welwitschii, and a species of African olive, Olea welwitschii.
All pages with titles containing welwitschii for plant species named for Welwitsch