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nature studies prodigy style 

Heinrich Kuhl

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Heinrich had a profound interest in science since his school years. He would often spend much time after school practicing quite an unusual hobby: learning how to skin, prepare and mount various specimens. He also enjoyed plentiful naturalistic trips in his home region of Wetterau in Germany.


Nonetheless, when it came to higher education, he was not to study natural sciences, but medicine in Heidelberg.

All changed during the summer of 1816, before the start of his first year at the university. 17-year-old Heinrich met a professor of natural history at the University of Groningen, Theodorus van Swinderen. He impressed the professor so greatly with his knowledge of plants and animal species, that he was offered not only an opportunity to study natural sciences in Groningen but also a paid post as an assistant at the Museum of natural history. Heinrich was overjoyed, not only by this opportunity but also by the prospect of seeing the sea for the first time in his life. 

He enrolled in the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences in 1816, getting housed in Martinikerkhof. That year, through Professor van Swinderen he made a friend with whom he'd spend the rest of his unfortunately short but very eventful life. Johan Conrad van Hasselt was a first-year student as well, with a keen interest in natural sciences. ‘‘Their joint interest in and enthusiasm for natural history made them spend many hours after lectures in the museum’’, as well as attend each other's courses.

That year Heinrich finally visited the Wadden Sea coast, collecting fish and birds. Through the summer he enjoyed boat trips and visits to friends and in 1817 returned to study chemistry, botany, anatomy, physiology, and natural history of birds taught by Van Swinderen.

In 1818 Heinrich and Johan embarked on a three-month tour of natural history cabinets, visiting prominent scientists and attending their lectures on the way. They traveled through Bremen, Celle, Berlin, Ziebigk, Halle, Jena, Hanau (where they visited Henrich’s family), and Heidelberg. Next year, alongside his studies Heinrich made plentiful trips to natural history collections around the province of Holland that contained more information than the natural history museum. In 1819, his third year of studies, Kuhl received a letter from the Dutch government.

He had been selected to travel on an expedition to the Dutch East Indies! Full of emotion he said to Van Swinderen: ‘‘It has always been my intention to live for my studies, but how difficult would that have been had I not had the fortune to meet you. My sojourn in Groningen was very pleasant and I shall never forget those wonderful days in which I started my development there.’’

The rest of the year Kuhl spent in preparation for the journey. From April to August he studied in London. Upon return, he was awarded a doctorate (without the need for additional formal study), thanks to a recommendation by his mentor, Van Swinderen. Then, just until the expedition he stayed in Hanau with his family, finishing his publications.

On the 9th of April 1820, Heinrich and Johan arrived in Amsterdam to prepare for their departure. After one last visit to Groningen the friends, now aged 22 and 23 embarked on their great expedition in July. The travel allowed the partners to collect and categorize numerous interesting specimens, yet due to a liver infection induced by the unusual climate and overexertion, Heinrich did not survive the journey. Johan continued his work meticulously, however, died just two years after. Both were buried in Bogor, Indonesia in the Botanical Garden. 

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