Christiaan Hendrik Persoon (1761 - 1836) - a brief biography

The information below is derived from many sources; major reference texts are listed at the foot of the page.

Christiaan Hendrik Persoon - Public Domain image

Christiaan Hendrik Persoon is generally regarded as the founding father of systematic mycology. Born at Stellenbosch in the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa in 1761, Persoon did not have the most propitious start in life. His mother died a few weeks after giving birth to her son, and a year later his father died leaving baby Christiaan and his two sisters to be brought up at Cape Town's Orphan Official Institute. From there, at the tender age of thirteen, the young Persoon was sent to be educated at Halle, in Germany, where he studied theology. He never did return to South Africa.

Persoon moved to Leiden to study medicine in 1786 before transfering to Göttingen to undertake botanical research. Details of his adult life are very fragmentary and throw little light on the kind of man he was.

In 1799 Persoon gained a doctorate from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Erlangen before moving to Paris four years later, from which time until he studied fungi and corresponded with other botanists (mycology was not a separate subject in those days, of course) throughout Europe. Persoon never married, and he spent his adult life more or less as a recluse. His published works formed the foundation upon which Elias Fries and later mycologists based their - Classifications; and to this day Persoon's Synopsis Methodica Fungorum, which predates Fries Systema mycologicum, remains the starting point for nomenclature of fungi in the orders Uredinales and Ustilaginales, and for the gasteromycetes (puffballs, earthstars and the like). For more information on the rules of citation of mycological authorities see our web page on this subject...

While in Paris, Persoon lived and worked (not at all successfully in financial terms, it appears) as a physician, spending his days in the cramped confines of a sixth-floor room in a poor part of the city. Nevertheless, he built up a substantial library and herbarium of dried plants and fungi which in 1834 he bequeathed to the King of the Netherlands; in return he received an annuity of 800 florins, which must have helped him to cope during his final years. On his death in 1836 the various parts of Persoon's collection of books, manuscripts and dried specimens were brought together in Leiden (in The Netherlands).

A mycological journal devoted to the taxonomy of fungi has been published by the National Herbarium of the Netherlands since 1959. In honour of Christiaan Henrik Persoon the journal is entitled Persoonia.

Christiaan Henrik Persoon died on 16th November 1836 at the age of 75.

The abbreviation Pers. is used to indicate Christiaan Hendrik Persoon as the author when citing a botanical or mycological name.

Positions and awards

What is particularly surprising is that at no time during his adult life is it recorded that Persoon held any kind of official full-time appointment; this is in stark contrast with his younger competitor Elias Magnus Fries, who ultimately eclipsed Persoon and gained greater fame and financial rewards from his pioneering work on fungi systematics. However, Persoon was recognised by other scientistific institutions and authorities of his time, including:

The Turin Academy of Sciences

The Society of Naturalists of Berlin

The Linnean Society of Philadelphia

Major Mycological Works

Observationes Mycologicae (1795 - 1799)

Tentamen Dispositionis Methodicae Fungorum in - Classes, Ordines, Generae et Familias (1797)

Synopsis Methodicae Fungorum (1801)

Mycologia Europaea (1822 - 1828); unfinished work

Selected Sources

Persoonia, the mycological journal of the National Herbarium of The Netherlands - www.persoonia.org

National Herbarium Nederland - www.nhn.leidenuniv.nl

Kew Bulletin Vol. 31, No. 3, 1977; Some Brief Reflections on C H Persoon, by R H Petersen

Fascinated by Fungi, Pat O'Reilly 2011

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