Christian Konrad Sprengel (Born today, 22 September,1750 – 7 April, 1816), is remembered for his studies on the fertilization of flowers by insects. In an era when the beauty of flowers were believed to be for man’s benefit and when sexuality was a subject not often broached by science: Sprengel’s work was ahead of his time. His major work is The Mystery of Nature Discovered in the Construction and the Pollination of Flowers. (1793)
Sprengel was born in Brandenburg an der Havel in the Margraviate of Brandenburg. He studied theology in Halle. In 1774 he became a teacher in Berlin. After 1787, Sprengel did considerable research on the pollination of plants and the interaction between flowers and their insect visitors. With his work Das entdeckte Geheimnis der Natur im Bau und in der Befruchtung der Blumen (Berlin 1793), he was one of the founders of pollination ecology as a scientific discipline. Together with one of his predecessors, Josef G. Köhlreuter, he is still the classic author in this field.
During his lifetime, his work was neglected, not only because it seemed to a lot of his contemporaries as obscene that flowers had something to do with sexual functions, but also because the immanent importance of his findings on the aspects of selection and evolution was not recognized. Until Charles Darwin‘s book On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing. (London 1862), floral ecology was not considered a ‘proper science’.
His work was accepted by many, however. From: Christian Konrad Sprengel’s life in relation to his family and his time. On the occasion of his 250th birthday (pdf)
It has been said (e.g. Bastine 1961), that Sprengel’s discoveries went unnoticed. However, as
early as July 1793, the director of the Botanical Garden in Göttingen, Georg Franz Hoffmann,
gave Sprengel’s book, “The secret of nature discovered”, a very favorable review in the
“Göttingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen”. He had verified several of Sprengel’s observations and advised readers likewise to learn from Sprengel’s approach (Wagenitz 1993).
Sprengel’s doctor, Heim, was also pleased because, after all, he had originally introduced
Sprengel to botany (Kessler 1846). Dr Heim wrote in a diary entry on 11 October 1794, that he had read Sprengel’s work with indescribable pleasure. He admired Sprengel’s astuteness, powers of observation, untiring diligence and clear descriptions. “His work is a masterpiece, an original of which all of Germany can be proud” (Meyer 1953). Of course Heim could also be proud because seldom does a doctor’s advice have such far-reaching consequences for biology. In 1796, Moritz Balthasar Borkhausen gave a very detailed description of Sprengel’s work in the series “Der Botaniker, oder Compendiöse Bibliothek alles Wissenswürdigen aus dem Gebiete der Kräuterkunde” (The botanist or compendious library of everything worth knowing from the field of the study of herbs). Although it was 45 pages long, it concluded with the words, “we hope to ntroduce our readers to this worthy naturalist with various astute observations in the following issues of this library in more detail” (Borkhausen 1796). In 1801, Kurt Sprengel emphasized the significant work of his uncle in the preface to a dissertation on nectaries (“De nectariis”) by Karl Ernst August Weihe, who was studying for his doctorate under Kurt Sprengel (Kaiser & Völker 1982). In 1802, he mentioned it again in the first part (“Von dem Bau der Gewächse”) of his “Anleitung zur Kenntnis der Gewächse in Briefen” (Guide to the knowledge of plants in letters).
Also in 1802, Carl Ludwig Willdenow incorporated Sprengel’s pollination biology into his third
edition of his “Grundriss der Kräuterkunde zu Vorlesungen” (Outline of the study of herbs for
lectures), and on pages 405-412 he presented it in detail. Nevertheless it must be said that
Sprengel’s work first really became known through Charles Darwin.
– For Darwin’s opinion on Sprengel in On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing. (1862)
– For a facsimile of his book Das entdeckte Geheimnis der Natur im Bau und der Befruchtung der Blumen is available online. (Illustrations on pages 231 +)