The development of the natural sciences in Chile owes a great deal to the two sons of John Wilhelm Everhard Philippi and María Ana Krumwiede: Rodolfo Amando (1808-1904) and Bernardo Eunom Philippi (1811-1852). Both boys started learning to read and write at home, under the tutelage of their mother, as was customary. In 1818, the family moved to Switzerland, where Bernardo and Rodolfo, students at a school run by J. Heinrich Pestalozzi, began to study languages and natural sciences. Bernardo went on to study at the Berlin Technical School (1822-1830) while his older brother studied medicine and surgery at the Royal Prussian University of Berlin (graduating in 1830). Bernardo, a keen reader of travel literature, began his own explorations in 1830. His first trip took him to Chile, China, India and Africa. Upon returning to Hamburg, he joined the navy and began studies at the local naval college (1831-1835). As part of a naval expedition, then, Bernardo returned to Chile where he began to collect indigenous relics hoping to sell them to the Berlin Museum. During a brief stay in Peru, he contracted malaria and decided to return to Chile (1838) because of its climate. Settled in Ancud, Chiloé, Bernardo explored, excavated and, taken by the natural resources and fertile soils which nurtured the dense forests, planned for European colonisation.
In 1839 he began the long journey back to Europe, arriving in Kassel to talk to his brother Rodolfo in May of 1840. Although Rodolfo had qualified in medicine, he never practiced, instead studying geology and biology and becoming well-known enough that his visitors included Alexander von Humboldt and Leopold von Buch. Rodolfo supported himself through several part-time positions, including research on plant fertility (with the Widow Kohlarusch); classifying plants from Egypt, Syria, Arabia and Ethiopia for a Professor Ehrenberg and teaching natural history in a girls' upper school. Combining these small salaries, he was able to live modestly. His growing reputation earned him financial greater security when, in 1834, he was appointed professor of natural sciences at the Polytechnical School in Kassel. Moreover, one of his articles, published on Sicilian molluscs (1836), was awarded a gold medal by Frederick William III of Prussia. Professional success combined with personal happiness, when he married his cousin Karolina Krumwiede in the same year. In 1837 a serious illness, not specified in the biographical literature, prompted him to move to Italy, using his wife's inheritance to fund the journey and living costs. With the family settled in Naples - due to the low cost of living and the ease with which Rodolfo could continue to study Sicilian molluscs - Karolina gave birth to their first son, Federico (1838-1910). When Rodolfo's health returned, the family went back to Kassel where his position awaited him and where Bernardo found him.
When Bernardo returned from his adventures in 1840, the brothers together travelled to Berlin to sell the items collected in Chile, to present research at the Natural Science Society in Berlin and, eventually, to convince the Berlin museum to sponsor Bernardo's further collecting. Returning to Chile the next year, Bernardo explored the regions around Valdivia, Osorno and Lake Llanquihue (believing he had 'discovered it'), making maps and plans for European colonisation. At the end of this trip, the Chilean government contracted him to participate, as the naturalist, in the seizure of the Straits of Magellan. The mission was successful, and Captain Juan Williams took possession of Puerto de Hambre in 1843 for the Chilean government. During his exploits in southern Chile, the German colonisation project was never far from Bernardo's mind: he published a map of the region (1846) and a pamphlet entitled 'Deutsche Auswanderung nach Chile', describing the country and including letters from Germans already happily settled there (1847). In 1848, finally appointed colonising agent for the Chilean government by President Manuel Bulnes, Bernardo returned to Europe to convince his compatriots of the benefits of immigration. Over three years, he toured various German principalities, trying to market Chile to potential emitters, and publicising Chile in the press. One advertisement listed Rodolfo, by then promoted to director of the Kassel Polytechnic, as the local contact. Further pamphlets, such as 'Nachrichten über die Provinz Valdivia', discussed the region around Lake Llanquihue and Chilean culture. In 1849 the first group of colonists Bernardo had organised, more than 200 people, set off for southern Chile.
The political instability of 1848, which helped Bernardo's immigration project, also began to make Rodolfo's life difficult. Although a not-very-active liberal, Rodolfo found that the changing political situation in Hessen and Kassel made his post increasingly untenable. Meanwhile, Bernardo had already been trying to convince him of the benefits of immigration, writing him letters on Chile's wonders. Eventually Rodolfo set out alone (July 1851), with the expectation of managing his brother's San Juan ranch in the Valdivia province, the same area which Bernardo promoted for immigrants. As manager of San Juan, Rodolfo had the leisure to continue the botanical studies which Claudio Gay had begun two decades earlier. Rodolfo sent his findings on Valdivia's flora to Ignacio Domeyko, a Polish engineer who was then the Secretary of the Facultad de Ciencias Físicas y Matemáticas. Domeyko arranged for Rodolfo to become affiliated with the university in 1852, as a correspondent. Settled into San Juan and beginning to establish himself locally as a man of science, Rodolfo was horrified to learn of his brother's murder in the Magallanes region.
While generally considered to be successful, Bernardo's colonisation project was nonetheless controversial because of the religious beliefs of these emigrants. He was accused of only bringing only Protestants to Chile, provoking a confrontation with the government. Bernardo protested that the bishops of Paderborn and Fulda had prohibited the emigration of Catholics from their dioceses, leaving him with no other option but to bring Protestants. Nonetheless, President Manuel Montt removed him from the colonisation project, which Bernardo had hoped to direct, and instead appointed him governor of the Magallanes Region, charged with re-establishing the colony he had helped to claim for Chile but which had subsequently been destroyed in conflicts with local indigenous people. As governor of the region, then, he undertook a short trip to the interior with six other men, to visit a cacique regarding the violence. The men never returned and searches provided no further clues until, in October 1852, one of the porters confessed that the men had been murdered in retaliation for an earlier killing of seven indigenous. Bernardo's body was never found.
When Rodolfo learned of his brother's murder, he sought to return to Germany immediately, but the Chilean government tempted him to stay with stable, well-paid, prestigious employment. Andrés Bello had put Rodolfo's name up for the posts of natural history professor at the University and director of the Museo Nacional, which included founding and directing a botanical garden, the combined salary of which was $3,000. Rodolfo accepted the appointment in 1853 and called for his family to come, and to bring his personal collections and his library. That same year, the Montt government contracted Rodolfo to explore the Atacama Desert, the results of which were published as Viage al desierto de Atacama (Germany, 1860), with 27 illustrations and a map. Shortly after his return from the Atacama Desert, his family arrived, including children Federico, Matilde, Elisa and Carlos; his youngest son, Bernardo, had died before the voyage was undertaken. Rodolfo settled his family at the San Juan ranch, while he himself lived in Santiago during the academic year, returning to be with his family during the summers. Rodolfo ensured that his children maintained cultural links to Germany by stocking the family's personal library with contemporary German literature.
When Rodolfo was first taken to see the museum with which his name would become synonymous, he was 'surprised by the poverty' of the collection (Philippi 1914, 17) and feared that Gay had taken the best specimens with him upon his return to Paris. Working with Philibert Germain and Bernardino Cortés, Rodolfo began a programme combining collecting, in order to increase the museum's stock, and culling, to make the collection scientific. His efforts, combined with donations the museum received, soon meant that the museum needed more space than that available in its single room. The museum was given a larger room in the Palacio de la Intendencia and, in 1866, part of the collection was transferred to the new university site. Rodolfo was never pleased with having the collection divided between two locations, which caused confusion and allowed for the theft of important artifacts. In 1876, the entire collection was transferred to the Quinta Normal, its current location, and there Rodolfo was given the land to create the botanical garden specified in his original contract. Looking back over his life's work at the age of 93, the achievements which stood out for Rodolfo were his trip to the Atacama Desert, a great adventure for him, and the collection he built in the Museo Nacional.
In his years at the museum, Rodolfo was constantly aided by his eldest son, Federico. Federico began his studies under his mother's tutelage in Naples and later in Kassel, when the family returned there. He had also studied humanities at Hildesheim before the family emigrated. Arriving in Chile (he was 16 when his father called for the family), Federico lived on the family's farm with his mother and younger siblings. The area provided the children with enjoyable opportunities for collecting flora, fauna and archaeological remains. Over the years, the family modernised production on the farm and continued to search every acre for new specimens of Chilean flora; many of these specimens are still in the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural. Using specimens found on the family farm, Federico created his own herbarium and began writing articles for the Anales de la Universidad on these plants and his other interest, insects. He also began to venture further afield in his explorations: in 1860, he went with his father to the Quebrada de San Ramón and his first independent exploration, in 1864, was to the Cordillera Pelada.
Rodolfo appears to have groomed his eldest son to continued his work as a teacher and at the museum. Federico had been his father's constant collaborator at the museum and had contributed to the growing botany collection through his collecting trips. The men worked as a team, dividing up the museum's numerous responsibilities. Father brought described the materials, while son worked at cataloguing items, both those that had been already catalogued using an outdated system and those that had yet to be catalogued, and described the new material. Federico also handled the museum's accounting and other administration, to provide his father more time for research. The collaboration between the two allowed Rodolfo to achieve a remarkable publication record: Federico was often a second, unacknowledged, author. When Rodolfo sought funds and permission to organise collecting trips for the museum, he often suggested his son lead them.
Federico had been sent to the University of Halle, Germany (1873), to gain his formal credentials, probably in anticipation of his father's retirement. Upon his return, Federico took on his father's posts of professor of botany at the University of Chile and professor of natural history at the Instituto Nacional. Federico also taught zoology and botany at the Instituto Agrícola (a post he held until 1897) and botany at the Escuela de Medicina (held until 1906). Upon taking up these positions, he moved into his father's Santiago house, which eventually sheltered four generations of Philippi's. In 1883, his father retired as head of the botanical gardens - associated with the Museo Nacional - in favor of Federico. With the museum's re-organization in 1889, in which the government mandated that the museum have a curator with three section heads under him, Federico was appointed head of the Botany Section, having been nominated by Rodolfo. This was his first official post within the museum after decades of unofficial work. In 1897, Rodolfo turned the entire museum over to his son, who ran it until his own death in 1910. Federico viewed his principal task inside the museum as bettering the section organization, including the never-ending task of creating catalogues of the material. This work was dramatically interrupted in 1906, when an earthquake damaged the museum building, particularly its northern and southern sides, destroying the collections in those areas. The morning after the earthquake, Federico, already 68 years old, ignored the building's structural instability and went into the wreckage to salvage what he could. Federico continued to risk himself for the museum, ignoring the tiredness he felt more as he aged, still arriving first in the morning and leaving last in the evening. Even the day before he died from the combination of a tumor and intestinal complications, he was organising matters in order to present the museum's finances to the government. Like his father, Federico worked for the museum until it was no longer physically possible: together the two men aspired to create a national museum in Chile with an international reputation.