Otto Kuntze – one of America’s best-known mineralogists – was born in Nordhausen, Germany on February 27, 1867, held a degree of Doctor of Philosophy from one of the leading German universities, and was trained as both a geologist and a chemist.
Records are a bit unclear, but it appears that Kuntze came to America in the mid-1890’s, settling in Iowa City around 1896/1897 – where he opened a drug store. In those days, there were several very successful family drug store/pharmacies in Iowa City – read more here – so, before long, Kuntze decided to put that aside and follow his truest passion – geology and mineralogy.
It’s our guess that there were a couple of factors that first drew Otto Kuntze to Johnson County, Iowa. First, as a geologist, his attention was, most likely, drawn here by the writings of world-renowned geologist Louis Agassiz – who traveled here in the 1860’s to examine the rare forms of coral found just northwest of Iowa City. Secondly, at the turn-of-the-century, S.U.I. was widely known for its expanding School of Natural Science – led by professors C.C. Nutting, Thomas McBride, and Samuel Calvin (below).
In 1896, Otto married Agnes Vogel of West Liberty, and by 1898, he was developing his strong interests in geology. In the November 29, 1899 edition of The Iowa State Press, Dr. Kuntze was the subject of a lengthy article entitled, A Geologist’s Work. In it, Otto is called “one of the best and most successful collectors (of rock specimens) in America.” According to the article, Kuntze was sent to the U.S. “as an agent whose duty it was to collect specimens of the rocks of America for several German universities.”
Over the years, the press reported on numerous trips Dr. Kuntze took collecting samples. The May 22, 1899 issue of The Daily Iowa State Press, for example, reported…
Dr. Otto Kuntze, who is widely known as a collector and dealer in rare geological and mineral specimens, returned home Saturday from an extended trip through the Southwest, particularly in Arkansas and Texas, bringing with him many rare and beautiful varieties of choice minerals, crystals and stones.
In February 1902, The Daily Iowan told the story about one of Dr. Kuntze’s rare fossils that was being displayed in H.J. Wieneke’s store in the St. James Hotel. Apparently, there was an attempt to raise $100 so the fossil could be donated to the SUI Museum of Natural History, but not enough interest was found. Sadly, the fossil went to another university at a much higher price.
In 1903, there were both highs and lows for Dr. Kuntze. In January, a devastating fire hit the Kuntze home on Dubuque Street – destroying a large number of specimens. But on the high side, by September, the whole city was excited to host a visit from one of Otto Kuntze’s German contacts – Professor Von Goldschmidt – advertised in the local papers as “One of the World’s Greatest Scientific Men.”
In 1904, Dr. Kuntze was on the road, once more. This time, it was to St. Louis to hob-knob with the world’s finest geologists and mineralogists at the World’s Fair. The Iowa City Daily Press for May 25, 1904 states…
Dr. Otto Kuntze will leave tonight for a week’s visit at the World’s Fair in St. Louis. Dr. Kuntze, who is an eminent mineralogist, will pay especial attention to the mines and mining displays.
All the while, Dr. Kuntze ran his successful retail business – The Iowa Mineral Office. Below are two ads taken from The Mineral Collector in 1899…
Without a doubt, Otto’s business was successful in sending rock specimens all over the world…
A note in the Iowa Citizen, Iowa City, Iowa, for January 29, 1906, states…
Dr. Otto Kuntze makes numerous shipments of valuable specimens to many countries. Among recent shipments of Dr. Otto Kuntze of this city, he has sent valuable geological specimens to Leipsig University, Germany; Adelaide, Australia; Vienna, Austria; Madrid, Spain; Paris; Natural History Museum, London; Christiana, Norway; and the United States Government.
Which brings us now to our rare postal cover and corresponding letter from Dr. Kuntze to Mr. R. Herrmann of Dubuque…
Dubuque’s Richard Herrmann was born in Chemnitz, Saxony, Germany on March 10, 1849, and came to America in September 1859 on the steamship “New York” with his parents. They settled in Pittsburgh, and then Centralia, Illinois, before moving to Dubuque, where Richard first worked in a bakery, and then tried his hand at farming.
In 1871, Herrmann was employed as a surveyor for the Illinois Central Railroad, but left to work for a cabinet maker. In 1877, Herrmann bought the business – including the factory and its retail store – eventually renaming it R. Herrmann & Sons. In 1897, Herrmann became the moving force behind the construction of the Julien Dubuque monument south of the city, excavating the grave to prove that it was truly Dubuque’s. In 1922, Richard authored a book on his favorite subject – Julien Dubuque – His Life and Adventures. Read Herrmann’s book here.
Richard Herrmann began collecting geological specimens when he was an employee of the Illinois Central Railroad, and gradually developed an extensive collection of Native American relics. Once his furniture business became successful, he expanded his collection, starting the Herrmann Museum of Natural History in his home in Dubuque. Certainly, it was this love of collecting geological specimens that put Herrmann in touch with Dr. Otto Kuntze of Iowa City in 1900.
Interestingly, Dr. Kuntze’s letter – from one German to another – is written in German, but it includes a price sheet – in English – for one of Kuntze’s mineral packages – A Collection of Fifty Rocks. Three sizes to choose from – S, M, and L ranging from $8 to $15! Order today!
We have no idea if the successful mineralogist – Dr. Kuntze – had a premonition about his life, but we find it interesting that in mid-March of 1908, the good doctor donated his entire personal collection of minerals, rocks, and other specimens to S.U.I. – a donation worth $10,000! Today, much of that collection remains in the Museum of Natural History in Macbride Hall.
Sadly, in a matter of days, after his generous donation to SUI, Otto Kuntze died suddenly of heart failure – at age 41- on March 21, 1908 in Iowa City. Below is his obituary – published in The Iowa City Citizen two days later.
A life cut short – but a life well lived. Godspeed Dr. Otto Kuntze – Iowa City’s world-renowned mineralogist.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.