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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 9, 2006

Botany-loving doc part of Isle history

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

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"HAWAII'S PIONEER BOTANIST: Dr. William Hillebrand, His Life & Letters" by Ursula H. Meier; Bishop Museum Press, hardback, $14.95

If Dr. William Hillebrand had never come to Hawai'i, my Portuguese ancestors might not have done so, either. There might be no plumeria lei at the May Day festival. Honolulu's streets might not be lined with shower trees and African tulips.

In this slim volume, Ursula Meier gathers what is known of this pioneer physician who treated patients for a living, but whose first love was botany.

In 21 years in Hawai'i, the German-born Hillebrand decided that Honolulu's dusty, unshaded plain should be covered with greenery, conducted a brisk seed exchange with collectors around the world, lobbied King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma to found what became The Queen's Hospital (where he became chief physician), wrote the first comprehensive book on Hawai'i flora, and was instrumental in bringing Chinese laborers to the Islands to work on the plantations.

Although Hillebrand left Hawai'i in 1871, his influence on the Islands continued. Suffering from a lung disease, Hillebrand took a rest cure in sunny Madeira in 1876.

There, he wrote to friends in Hawai'i that the underemployed Portuguese would make willing and industrious plantation laborers; he became the Islands' immigration commissioner to Portugal and signed the contracts of the earliest workers.

This book is interesting for what it includes and what it doesn't. The second half of the volume collects Hillebrand's letters, which mostly concern his botanical interests; one yearns to hear more of his family life and his views of the Islands in the waning days of the monarchy.

But Hillebrand, described as "quiet, sober and practical," rarely wrote of personal matters, and Meier has made the most of the limited material available.

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.