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December 16, 2004

The Metamorphosis of Plants

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; introduction and photographs by Gordon L. Miller
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2009
155 pp., illus. 63 col., 21 b/w.  Trade, $15.37
ISBN: 978-0-262-01309-3.

Reviewed by Wilfred Niels Arnold
University of Kansas Medical Center


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was born to a distinguished family in Frankfurt.  At 16 he began the study of law at the University of Leipzig — continued at Strasbourg where he attending lectures on a wide variety of subjects now associated with the sciences and the humanities — and earned his degree in 1771.  His aesthetical gaze and social acumen were encouraged and influenced by Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), and other luminaries of the day.  Goethe was indeed a polymath, and in addition to his accomplishments in poetry and drama (best known for Faust) he contributed to many sciences as a keen observer of nature and much more.  The volume under review is an example of the scientific side of his wide-ranging work and dates from 1790.

The current 8 x 6 inch edition is handsomely produced on quality paper.  The 60+ photographic images are the fine work of Professor Miller.  This edition is obviously a labor of love.  It will be a pleasant encounter on many a coffee table.  One worries about the extent of the audience that will pursue historical aspects of botany and philosophy beyond browsing the beautiful pictures and recognizing the occasional paragraph.

As a graduate student at Cornell University in the late 1950’s I enjoyed the general excitement surrounding the growth a complete and fertile carrot plant from a small disc of root tissue.  Plant scientists, there and elsewhere, were soon doing it with single cells, thus proving that all the morphological information resided in the genome of a somatic cell.  The culture media were complex — containing all sorts of yet to be discovered growth factors — but this scientific benchmark did take the wind out of the somewhat mystical sails of metamorphosis à la Goethe.  None of this should inhibit naturalists with a genuine interest in the past and a curiosity about the formative years of botany.  This edition may have benefited from a closing essay about aspects that have or have not stood the test of time.

The photographic images are the highlight of the book.  There are two watercolors, an engraving, and several figures from the time of Goethe — unfortunately, the publisher neglected to include an overall list.  A modest index contains some 240 items.  Gordon Miller is the director of the interdisciplinary environmental studies program at Seattle University.  He has edited or co-authored five other books on ecological subjects.

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