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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 6, 2005

German doctor's botanical legacy still thrives

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By Winnie Singeo

What do Foster Botanical Garden, The Queen's Medical Center and the Bishop Museum have in common?

The answer: Dr. William Hillebrand, a German physician who came to Hawai'i in 1850, lived at what is now Foster Botanical Garden, practiced medicine at The Queen's Hospital and is honored through a display at the Bishop Museum.

William Hillebrand came to Hawai'i for much the same reason that many others still come to our Islands — the mild and pleasant climate. He stayed for a little over 20 years and made significant contributions that endure to this day.

Giant kapok trees at right were planted by Dr. William Hillebrand in what is now Foster Botanical Garden.

Winnie Singeo

Appointed physician to the royal family at The Queen's Hospital (now The Queen's Medical Center), Hillebrand also served as chief physician at the hospital from 1860 to 1871.

Six years after his arrival, he and nine other Honolulu physicians petitioned to charter an organization called the Hawaiian Medical Society.

Two months later, the petition was granted. Today, it is the Hawai'i Medical Association.

In 1853, Hillebrand purchased 13 acres of land from Queen Kalama, just a short distance from where he worked. He had a keen interest in plants, and over the years, planted a number of exotic and native trees in his garden.

Before he left the Islands to return to Germany, Hillebrand sold the property to Capt. Thomas and Mary Foster. Years later, Mary Foster bequeathed the land to the city, which opened it to the public as Foster Botanical Garden in 1930.

During his stay in Hawai'i, Hillebrand traveled to Asia and the East Indies on behalf of the Hawaiian government. He had three main goals: to find sources of labor for the sugar plantations, to learn about the latest treatments for leprosy, and to collect and import plants and animals that would be useful to the Islands.

Did he accomplish his goals? Well, today the successful Chinese and Portuguese communities in Hawai'i can be traced back to Hillebrand's efforts. We also can thank him every time we bite into the luscious lychee, laugh at the antics of the mynah bird, or admire the giant kapok and earpod trees that he planted at Foster Botanical Garden.

As for his findings on the latest treatment of leprosy, Hillebrand wrote an article that was published in 1883.

To find out more about this doctor, scientist, botanist, diplomat and public servant, visit the Bishop Museum.

An exhibit showcasing Hillebrand's life in Hawai'i is on the third floor of the museum's Hawaiian Hall.

The exhibit runs through the end of this year. For more information, call 847-3511 or visit www.bishopmuseum.org.

Tip: Those interested in reading more about the man may want to keep an eye out for a biography of William Hillebrand, written by Ursula Meier, being published by the Bishop Museum Press.

Winnie Singeo is the botanist for the Honolulu botanical gardens. Reach her at hbg@honolulu.gov.

Foster Botanical Garden, 50 N. Vineyard Blvd., is open daily except Christmas and New Year's days from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 522-7066.