Today marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Christian Ludwig Brehm. Father of an even more famous son, Brehm was a dominant figure in continental natural history in the first half of the nineteenth century, a Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher and David Attenborough and David Sibley all rolled into one.
Brehm was, in both senses, a popular writer on the bird life of Germany and Europe, but his most lasting contribution was likely his personal collection of skins and mounts. Assembled with the help of his sons from two marriages, Brehm’s cabinet eventually included some 15,000 specimens. A generation after Brehm’s death, the birds were purchased by Lord Rotschild, whence they entered the collections of the American Museum 35 years later; some have meanwhile made their way back to German museums.
The importance of that collection to Brehm’s colleagues can be measured in the verse eulogy composed by the poetaster Ph. H. Welcker, who wrote the year after his friend’s death that
His publications commemorate his greatness in scholarship. / As a legacy he has left behind thousands of bird mummies. / And that trove of bird mummies, the envy of foreigners, / Is magnificently and realistically preserved, as if dressed by the hand of God. / Like his writings, that trove remains a witness to a well-lived life / Of inexhaustibly active industry and admirable effort.
This is, by the way, the only German poem I know to use the word “Vogelmumien” twice. (It’s hardly better in the original, but at least it rhymes there.)
Welcker also relates — also in rhymed couplets — a touching incident from Brehm’s funeral. When the casket had been lowered into the ground, a garden warbler burst suddenly into song in the nearby twigs,
You let your sweet full singing roll over the coffin of the man who knew your folk so well. You were the ambassador of your bright-feathered throng, greeting him one last time on the approach to the gates of darkness.
Did it really happen?