Paulus roetter (1806–1894)

Paulus Roetter was among a group of German-born scientists and artists who made major contributions to the field of botany in mid-19th century America. George Engelmann, Friedrich Wislizenus, Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen, and Roetter were compatriots in St. Louis who all worked at various times and in various capacities on the great survey expeditions of the time.

Roetter studied art in Germany and later in Switzerland taught art and achieved some reknown for his landscape paintings. In 1845, he emigrated to the United States with his wife and three children. After an unsuccessful attempt to establish a religious community, Roetter settled in the frontier town of St. Louis, where he worked as an art teacher and pastor at St. Mark's Evangelical Church.

In 1853, Roetter joined the faculty of Washington University and became the University's first drawing instructor. Here he became acquainted with George Engelmann, a physician, botanist, and fellow German. This association sparked Roetter's interest in natural history and the drawing of biological specimens. Their association eventually produced a bounty of botanical illustrations, primarily of plants of the American Southwest.

Their collaboration included participation in the United States and Mexico Boundary Survey of 1850 to 1855. Roetter was one of many artists and draftsmen whose task was to record the geology and the animal and plant life that the expeditions encountered during the survey. The final publication was a two-volume work completed in 1859, the Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey, made under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior by William H. Emory.

Volume II of the Report included George Engelmann's "Cactaceae of the Boundary," to which Roetter's contribution was 75 superbly rendered botanical illustrations of the cacti of the region to accompany Engelmann's text. Roetter also produced the striking frontispiece of the volume—an illustration of Cereus giganteus based on a field sketch by Möllhausen (middle right).

To honor the work of his illustrator, Engelmann named one of the cacti described in "Cactaceae of the Boundary" after Roetter—Cereus roetteri. At the end of the botanical description of the cactus, Engelmann wrote: "I take great pleasure to acknowledge my indebtedness to the modest and faithful artist, Mr. Paulus Roetter, who has adorned this memoir by his skillful pencil, by naming this species after him."

At the same time that the Boundary Survey was being conducted, a different series of expeditions was mounted to survey the land west of the Mississippi to find appropriate routes for building a transcontinental railroad. Again Engelmann and Roetter produced descriptions and illustrations of the cacti found along the southern survey route. Most of the illustrations were produced by Roetter but some of the drawings of the Cylindropuntia included sketches by Möllhausen, the on-site artist of the expedition.

While producing these many botanical illustrations Roetter continued to teach art at Washington University and the Mary Institute for Girls. The advent of the Civil War brought financial hardships to the University, and Roetter's employment there was ended. During this time he sold illustrations to Harper's Weekly magazine.

In 1867, Roetter moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he worked at Harvard University with Louis Agassiz and taught botanical drawing at Agassiz's seaside laboratory, the Anderson School of Natural History. In an interesting change of drawing subject, Roetter's ichthyological drawings for Agassiz were exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and won highest honors. They were later exhibited in Paris, where again they were awarded highest recognition.

Roetter retired from his work in Cambridge in 1884 and returned to St. Louis. Ten years later, he died after breaking a hip during his daily walk in Forest Park.

Here is a selection of drawings of Sonoran Desert plants that Paulus Roetter contributed to the Boundary and Railroad Surveys. Preliminary sketches for some of the drawings are shown here.

Additional works by Paulus Roetter can be viewed at the Missouri Botanical Garden Library's Botanicus project.