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Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold (February 17, 1796 in W├╝rzburgmarker - October 18, 1866 in Munichmarker) was a German physician. He emerged as the first European to teach Western medicine in Japanmarker. He obtained significance for his study of Japanese flora and fauna that were endemic to the unique biotic island landscape.


Early life

Born in, W├╝rzburgmarker city, Bishopric of W├╝rzburgmarker into a family of doctors and professors of medicine, von Siebold initially studied medicine at University of W├╝rzburgmarker from November 1815. One of his professors was Franz Xaver Heller (1775-1840), author of the Flora Wirceburgensis (flora of the Grand Duchy of W├╝rzburg, 1810-1811). Ignaz D├Âllinger (1770-1841), his professor of anatomy and physiology, however, most influenced him. D├Âllinger was one of the first professors to understand and treat medicine as a natural science. Von Siebold stayed at Dollinger's, where he came in regular contact with other scientists. He read the books of Alexander von Humboldt, a famous naturalist and explorer, which likely raised his desire for travels to far-away, distant lands. Philipp von Siebold became a Doctor by earning his M.D. in 1820. He initially practiced medicine in Heidingsfeld, Germany (now part of W├╝rzburg).

Invited to Holland by an acquaintance of the family, von Siebold applied for a position as a military doctor. This position would enable him to travel to the Dutch colonies. He entered Dutch military service on June 19, 1822. He was appointed ship's doctor on the frigate Adriana on the voyage from Rotterdammarker to Batavia (present-day Djakartamarker) in the Dutch East Indiesmarker (present-day Indonesia). On his trip to Batavia on the frigate Adriana, he practiced his knowledge of the Dutch language and rapidly learned Malay. During the long trip, von Siebold started a collection of sea fauna. He arrived in Batavia on February 18, 1823.

As an army medical officer, von Siebold posted with an artillery unit. He stayed, however, a couple of weeks at the residence of the governor-general to recover from illness. With his erudition, he impressed the governor-general baron Van der Capellen and the head of the botanical garden Buitenzorg Caspar Georg Carl Reinwardt. Already, these men witnessed a second Engelbert Kaempfer and Carl Peter Thunberg (author of Flora Japonica), both former resident physicians at Deshima. The Batavian Academy of Arts and Science made von Siebold a member.


Portrait and residence of Dr. PH.
Von Siebold at Narutaki, Nagasaki
Siebold Nagasaki Park, Nagasaki
Sent to Dejimamarker, the artificial island next to Nagasaki, in June 28, 1823, von Siebold arrived August 11, 1823 as the new resident physician and scientist to the island. During his eventful trip he barely escaped drowning during a typhoon in the East China Seamarker. Since only a very limited number of Dutch citizens were allowed on this island, the posts of physician and scientist had to be combined. At that time, Deshima was no longer in the possession of the Dutch East Indian Company but was kept running by the Dutch State, because of political reasons.

Von Siebold invited Japanese scientists to show them the marvels of western science, learning in return through them much about the Japanese and their customs. After curing a local influential officer, von Siebold gained the ability to leave the trade post. He used this opportunity to treat Japanese patients in the greater area around the trade post.

Since mixed marriages were forbidden, von Siebold "lived together" with his Japanese partner Kusumoto Taki (ŠąáŠťČŠ╗Ł). In 1827 Kusumoto Taki gave birth to their daughter, Oine. Von Siebold used to call his wife "Otakusa" and named a Hydrangea after her. As a result of her father's efforts, Oine eventually became the first Japanese woman known to have received a physician's training, and became a highly-regarded practicing physician. She died in 1903.

Von Siebold began a medical school with 50 students appointed by the Shogun (see Rangaku). They helped the botanical and naturalistic studies of von Siebold. His school, the Narutaki-juku, grew into a meeting place for around 50 Rangakusha. Recognized by the Japanese, von Siebold served as an expert on Western science. The Dutch language became the lingua franca (common spoken language) for these academic and scholarly contacts until the Meiji Restoration.

His patients paid him in kind with a variety of objects and artifacts that would later gain historical significance. These everyday objects later became the basis of his large ethnographic collection, which consisted of everyday household goods, woodblock prints, tools and hand-crafted objects used by the Japanese people.

His main interest, however, focused on the study of Japanese fauna and flora. He collected as much material as he could. Starting a small botanical garden behind his home (there was not much room on the small island) von Siebold amassed over 1,000 native plants. In a specially built glasshouse he cultivated the Japanese plants to endure the Dutchmarker climate. Local Japanese artists drew images of these plants, creating botanical illustrations and images of the daily life in Japan, which complemented his ethnographic collection. He hired Japanese hunters to track rare animals and collect specimens. Many specimens were collected with the help of his Japanese collaborators Keisuke Ito (1803-1901), Mizutani Sugeroku (1779-1833), Ohkochi Zonshin (1796-1882) and Katsuragawa Hoken (1797-1844), a physician to the Shogun. As well, von Siebold's assistant and later successor, Heinrich B├╝rger (1806-1858), proved to be indispensable in carrying on von Siebold's work in Japan.

Von Siebold first introduced to Europe such familiar garden-plants as the Hosta and the Hydrangea otaksa. Unknown to the Japanese, he was also able to smuggle out germinative seeds of tea plants to the botanical garden Buitenzorg in Batavia. Through this single act, he started the tea culture in Javamarker, a Dutch colony at the time. Until then Japan had strictly guarded the trade in tea plants. Remarkably, in 1833, Java already could boast a half million tea plants.

During his stay at Deshima, he sent three shipments with an unknown number of herbarium specimens to Leiden, Ghentmarker, Brusselsmarker and Antwerpmarker. The shipment to Leiden contained the first specimens of the Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus) to be sent to Europe.

In 1825 the East Indian Company provided him with two assistants: apothecary and mineralogist Heinrich B├╝rger (his later successor) and the painter Carl Hubert de Villeneuve. Each would prove to be useful to von Siebold's efforts that ranged from ethnographical to botanical tohorticultural, when attempting to document the exotic Eastern Japanese experience.

Reportedly, von Siebold was not the easiest man to deal with; he was in continuous conflict with his Dutch superiors, who felt he was arrogant. This thread of conflict resulted in his recall in July 1827 back to Batavia. But the ship, the Cornelis Houtman, sent to carry von Siebold back to Batavia, was thrown ashore by a typhoon in Nagasaki bay. The same storm badly damaged Dejima and destroyed von Siebold's botanical garden. Repaired, the Cornelis Houtman set afloat. It left for Batavia with 89 crates of von Siebold's salvaged botanical collection, but von Siebold, however, remained behind in Dejima.

The Siebold Incident

In 1828 von Siebold made the court journey to Edo. During this long trip he collected many plants and animals. But he also obtained from the court astronomer Takahashi Kageyasu several detailed maps of Japan and Korea (written by Ino Tadataka), an act strictly forbidden by the Japanese government. When the Japanese discovered, by accident, that von Siebold had mapped northern parts of Japan, the government accused him of high treason and of being a spy for Russiamarker.

The Japanese ordered von Siebold into house arrest and expelled him from Japanmarker on October 22, 1829. Satisfied that his Japanese collaborators would continue his work, he journeyed back on the frigate Java to his former residence, Batavia, in possession of his enormous collection of thousands of animals and plants, his books and his maps. The botanical garden of Buitenzorg would soon house von Siebold's surviving, living flora collection of 2,000 plants. He arrived in the Netherlands on July 7, 1830. His stay in Japan and Batavia had lasted for a period of eight years.

Return to Europe

Von Siebold arrived just at a time when, in 1830, political troubles erupted in Brusselsmarker, leading soon to the Belgianmarker independence. Hastily he salvaged his ethnographic collections in Antwerpmarker and his herbaria specimens in Brussels and brought them over to Leiden. Unfortunately, he left behind his botanical collections of living plants that were sent to the University of Ghentmarker. The consequent expansion of this collection of rare and exotic plants led to the horticultural fame of Ghentmarker. Nevertheless, the University of Gent presented him in 1841, in gratitude, specimens of every plant from his original collection.

Von Siebold settled in Leidenmarker, taking with him the major part of his collection. The "von Siebold collection," containing many species type specimens, was the earliest botanical collection from Japan. Even today, it still remains a subject of ongoing research, a testimony to the depth of work undertaken by von Siebold. It contained about 12,000 specimens, from which he could describe only about 2,300 species. The whole collection was purchased for a handsome amount by the Dutch government. As well, von Siebold was granted a substantial annual allowance by the Dutch King William II and was appointed Advisor to the King of Japanese Affairs. In 1842 the King even raised von Siebold to the peerage as an esquire.

Title page of Flora Japonica

The "von Siebold collection" opened to the public in 1831. He founded a museum in his home in 1837. This small, private museum would eventually evolve into the National Museum of Ethnologymarker in Leiden.Seibold's successor in Japan, Heinrich B├╝rger sent Siebold three more shipments of specimens collected in Japan. This flora collection formed the basis of the Japanese collections of the National Herbarium of the Netherlands in Leiden and the natural history museum Naturalismarker (National Natuurhistorisch Museum)

During his stay in Leiden he wrote Nippon in 1832, the first volume of a richly illustrated ethnographical and geographical work on Japan. It also contained a report of his journey to the Shogunate Court at Edo. He wrote six further volumes, the last ones published posthumously in 1882. His sons published an edited and cheap reprint in 1887.

The Bibliotheca Japonica appeared between 1833 and 1841. This work was co-authored by Joseph Hoffmann and Kuo Cheng-Chang, a Javanese of Chinese extraction, who had journeyed along with von Siebold from Batavia. It contained a survey of Japanese literature and a Chinese, Japanese and Korean dictionary.

The zoologists Coenraad Temminck (1777-1858), Hermann Schlegel (1804-1884) and Wilhem de Haan (1801-1855) "scientifically" described and documented von Siebold's collection of Japanese animals. The Fauna Japonica, a series of monographs published between 1833 and 1850, was mainly based on Siebold's collection, making the Japanese fauna the best-described non-European fauna - a remarkable feat for von Siebold. A not insignificant part of the Fauna Japonica was also based on the collections of Siebold's successor on Dejima, Heinrich B├╝rger.

Von Siebold wrote his Flora Japonica in collaboration with the German botanist Joseph Gerhard Zuccarini (1797-1848). It first appeared in 1835, but the work was not completed until after his death, finished in 1870 by F.A.W. Miquel (1811-1871), director of the Rijksherbarium in Leiden. This work established von Siebold's scientific fame, not only--and already--in Japan, but in Europe as well.

From the Hortus Botanicus Leidenmarker--the botanical gardens of Leiden--many of Siebold's plants spread to Europe and from there to other countries. Hosta and hortensia, Azalea, and the Japanese butterbur and the coltsfoot as well as the Japanese larch began to inhabit gardens across the "world," which likely consisted of the Colonial Trans-Atlantic, where trade flourished both in the North and the South, the East and the West of the two opposing hemispheres--the "Old World" and "New World."

International reputation

As a well-known expert on Japan, Siebold discovered that his expertise and opinions were sought after by a range of questioners. Whilst living in Boppardmarker, from 1852 he was became involved in correspondence with Russian diplomats such as Baron von Budberg-B├Ânninghausen, the Russian ambassador to Prussia.

American Naval Commodore Matthew C. Perry consulted Siebold in advance of his voyage to Japan in 1854.

Though he is well known in Japan ('Shiboruto-san'), mentioned in the relevant schoolbooks, von Siebold is almost unknown to the Dutch, Germans or Americans, except among gardeners who admire many plants with the entitlement of the sieboldii and sieboldiana. The Hortus Botanicusmarker in Leiden has recently laid out the "von Siebold Memorial Garden", a Japanese garden with plants sent by von Siebold. Japanese visitors come and visit this garden, to pay their respect for him.

Plants named after Siebold

The botanical and horticultural spheres of influence have honored von Siebold by naming some of the finest and most garden-worthy plants in their genera. Examples are as follows:
Toringo Crab-Apple (Flowering Malus toringo var. sargentii, sieboldii)

In addition to these examples, which demonstrate the honor gained by von Siebold, there are more plants named as a tribute to him, which are not mentioned above. Also a type of abalone, "Nordotis gigantea" is known as Siebold's abalone, and is prized for sushi.

In later years, von Siebold became an adviser on Japanese cultural and social issues for several governments. This position granted von Siebold a return to Japan as an "adviser" from 1859 till 1863. While back in Japan, he went to see Kusomoto Sonogi several times. His proposals for a "cultural" approach to the Japanese, instead of a "mercantile" approach were not appreciated by the Dutch government. The Dutch Government recalled von Siebold, first to Batavia and then to Holland. Disillusioned by this lack of understanding of Japan and his own failure to be appreciated, von Siebold returned to his native town of W├╝rzburg, offering in vain his services to the French and Russian governments.

Siebold museums

Against this disillusionment, a testimony of the remarkable character of von Siebold is found in the several museums dedicated to him.
  • A museum now stands in a transformed, refitted, formal, first house of von Siebold in Leiden: the Siebold Huis.
  • In W├╝rzburg, Germany, a Siebold-Museum exists as well.
  • And, the city Nagasaki, Japan, pays tribute to von Siebold by housing the Siebold Memorial Museummarker on property adjacent to von Siebold's former residence in the Narutaki neighborhood. The first museum dedicated to a non-Japanese in Japan.

His collections laid the foundation for the ethnographic museums of Munich and Leiden. Alexander von Siebold, his son to his European wife, donated much of the material left behind after von Siebold's death in W├╝rzburg to the British Museummarker in London. The Royal Scientific Academy of St. Petersburgmarker purchased 600 colored plates of the Flora Japonica.

The European tradition of sending doctors with botanical training to Japan had been long in existence. Sent on a mission by the Dutch East India Company, Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716), a German physician and a botanist who lived in Japan from 1690 until 1692, ushered in this tradition of a combination of physician and botanist. The Dutch East India Company did not, however, actually employ the Swedish botanist and physician Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828), who arrived in Japan in 1775.

His other son Heinrich (Henry) von Siebold (1852ÔÇô1908), continued part of his father's research. As well, he is recognized together with Edward S. Morse as one of the founders of modern archaeological efforts in Japan.

Published works

  • (1832-1852) Nippon. Archiv zur Beschreibung von Japan und dessen Neben- und Schutzl├Ąndern: Jezo mit den S├╝dlichen Kurilen, Krafto, Koorai und den Liukiu-Inseln. 7 volumes, Leiden.
    • Revised and enlarged edition by his sons in 1897: Nippon. Archiv zur Beschreibung von Japan ..., 2. ver├Ąnderte und erg├Ąnzte Auflage, hrsg. von seinen S├Âhnen, 2 volumes, W├╝rzburg and Leipzig.
  • (1829) Synopsis Hydrangeae generis specierum Iaponicarum. In: Nova Acta Physico-Medica Academiae Caesareae Leopoldino-Carolina vol 14, part ii.
  • (1835-1870) (with von Zuccarini, J.G.) Flora Japonica. Leiden.
  • (1843) (with von Zuccarini, J.G.) Plantaram, quas in Japonia collegit Dr. Ph. Fr. De Siebold genera nova, notis characteristicis delineationibusque illustrata proponunt. In: Abhandelungen der mathematisch-physikalischen Classe der K├Âniglich Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften vol.3, pp 717ÔÇô750.
  • (1845) (with von Zuccarini, J.G.) Florae Japonicae familae naturales adjectis generum et specierum exemplis selectis. Sectio prima. Plantae Dicotyledoneae polypetalae. In: Abhandelungen der mathematischphysikalischen Classe der K├Âniglich Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften vol. 4 part iii, pp 109ÔÇô204.
  • (1846) (with von Zuccarini, J.G.) - Florae Japonicae familae naturales adjectis generum et specierum exemplis selectis. Sectio altera. Plantae dicotyledoneae et monocotyledonae. In: Abhandelungen der mathematischphysikalischen Classe der K├Âniglich Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften vol. 4 part iii, pp Band 4 pp 123ÔÇô240.
  • (1841) Manners and customs of the Japanese, in the nineteenth century. From recent Dutch visitors of Japan and the German of Dr. Ph. Fr. von Siebold. London: Murray 1841. (compiled by an anonymous author, not by Siebold himself !)

See also


  • Eberhard Friese: Philipp Franz von Siebold als fr├╝her Exponent der Ostasienwissenschaften. = Berliner Beitr├Ąge zur sozial- und wirtschaftswissenschaftlichen Japan-Forschung Bd. 15. Bochum 1983 ISBN 3-88339-315-0
  • Otterspeer, W. (1989). Leiden Oriental Connections, 1850-1940, Vol. V: Studies in the History of Leiden University. Leiden: E. J. Brill. 10-ISBN 9-0040-9022-3; 13-ISBN 978-90040-9022-4 (paper)
  • Sewall, John S. (1905). The Logbook of the Captain's Clerk: Adventures in the China Seas, Bangor, Maine: Chas H. Glass & Co. [reprint by Chicago: R.R. Donnelly & Sons, 1995] ISBN 0-5482-0912-X
  • Yamaguchi, T., 1997. Von Siebold and Japanese Botany. Calanus Special number I.
  • Yamaguchi, T., 2003. How did Von Siebold accumulate botanical specimens in Japan? Calanus Special number V.
  • The Siebold herbarium
  • Life of von Siebold (in Dutch)

External links


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