Ecuador: Little Known Bontanist who identified a thousand species

Posted on June 18, 2016 • Filed under: Ecuador, Ecuador Trivia


GUSTAV WALLIS, the indefatigable traveler and botanist, whose death at Cuenca, Ecuador, we recently announced, was born May 1, 1830, at Lüneburg, Prussia, where his father was an advocate and proctor of the superior court. He died at the early age of forty-eight years, of which the last eighteen were spent in incessant travel and research. We have not been able to learn any particulars concerning the early life of this distinguished traveler, for the compilers of biographical dictionaries have utterly ignored the man whose merit is simply that he has enriched horticulture with no less than one thousand new species. And here we may remark that works of the class just named are as a rule singularly neglectful of the representatives of science: while every divine and politician that rises ever so little above the average of his class is mentioned, scientific men whose fame is world-wide are passed by in silence. For the biographical items contained in the present sketch we gratefully acknowledge our indebtedness to our German contemporary, Die Natur, in which is published a brief but appreciative memoir of Wallis by his friend Dr. Karl Müller, editor of that very able magazine.


Wallis’s travels in quest of botanical rarities began in 1860, his first field of labor being the same which, with the exception of two years, engaged his attention down to the day of his death—tropical America. In that year we find him exploring the banks of the Lower Amazon and a few of its principal tributaries, the Tapajos, Madeira, Purus, etc. In 1863, quitting the course of the great stream, he made an excursion northward, crossing the Rio Negro and the Rio Branco and penetrating to the Sierra Parima on the southern frontier of Venezuela, in longitude west 64°, and nearly under the equator. Returning to the Amazon, he explored the left bank for some distance up-stream; then swimming across the river, he followed the right bank westward into Peru and Ecuador, crossing the Cordilleras, and in 1866 arriving at the city of Guayaquil. Here he took ship for the port of Buenaventura in the Colombian State of the same name; and thence, after exploring the coast Cordillera of the State of Choco, visited the valley of the Cauca. In 1867 he reached Panama and explored the Isthmus up to the volcano of Chiriqui. Turning back he traveled along the northern coast of Colombia till he reached the State of Santa Marta, and then turning south he crossed the Sierra Nevada, and made his way to Santa Fé de Bogotá, traversing the intermediate provinces. In the same year (1868) he sailed on his return voyage to Europe, having traversed the whole extent of tropical America from north to south. He reached his German home in a state of complete physical exhaustion, as very plainly appears from the photograph taken at this time, of which our engraving is a copy.

Hitherto he had been in the employ of a well-known horticultural establishment in Brussels, that of Linden; but in 1869 he received a commission from the London house of Veitch & Co. to visit the Philippines on an errand similar to that from which he had so recently returned. He accordingly took passage for the United States, traveled overland to California, and thence reached Manila by way of China and Japan. He specially studied the mountain-chains of Luzon for plants and other natural-history specimens. In 1871 he returned home by way of Singapore and the Suez Canal.

Before the year was at an end he was again en route for the tropical regions of South America. These countries had cast their spell upon him, and he could with justice say that, of all botanical travelers, he knew them best. At the same time he was in hopes that he might be able to visit and botanically explore a region that was in bad repute, owing to the hostile character of the neighboring Indians, viz., the “Pongo de Manseriche”—the grand rocky chasm through which the Maranon forces its way. He had once before approached very near to this locality from the Ecuador side, but had been obliged to give it a wide berth, the natives manifesting their hostility. But his explorations this time extended only to the Paramó country in New Granada, and in 1872 he went back to Europe. This expedition was made at the expense of the house of Linden. Again he explored the elevated mountain-chains of the United States of Colombia; and finally, at his own charges, he began an exploration of the Pacific coast of Ecuador.

The hardships endured by Wallis during these fifteen years of constant pioneering in tropical forests and swamps finally undermined his strength, and he was seized with a complication of diseases. He died, penniless and friendless, in the hospital of the Sisters of Charity at Cuenca, Ecuador, on the 20th of June, 1878. Science Monthly 1879

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