Thaddaeus Haenke was born of ethnic German extraction in the Bohemian village of Kreibnitz (now Chřibská), near the Sudeten Mountains in what is today the Czech Republic in 1761. A keen observer of nature from childhood, this aptitude was cultivated throughout his education at the Jesuit college in Prague, and later at Carolus University, where he studied medicine, botany and astronomy. He undertook a study of the botany of the Giant Range (German: Riesengebirge) of the Sudeten Mountains for the Royal Bohemian Academy of Science and, upon obtaining his degree of Magister in 1786, moved to Vienna. His botanical work took him to the Tyrol, Carinthia and Styria.
He came to the notice of Ignaz von Born and Nikolaus Joseph Jacquin, influential savants who put his name forward in July 1789 when the Spanish Government was recruiting for the Malaspina expedition. Prior to this, Born had proposed to Emperor Joseph II an Austrian expedition to the Pacific comparable to those led by James Cook. The expedition would have been commanded by William Bolts, of the Imperial Asiatic Company of Trieste. Although the Emperor was initially enthusiastic, the venture eventually proved impossible to realize, principally because of the bankruptcy of the Imperial Asiatic Company of Trieste. The Emperor gave Bolts leave to take his proposal to other courts friendly to Austria, and Bolts put placed it before the French Government, which adopted the concept (though not its author) leading to the sending out of the Lapérouse expedition.
Haenke presumably would have been stimulated by the discussion associated with the schemes for round the world voyages of exploration to consider the advantages of participating in such an undertaking, and in fact he spent the period from September 1787 to May 1788 in anticipation of joining a proposed Russian expedition to the Pacific under the command of Grigory I. Mulovsky. He would have been the assistant to the proposed expedition’s chief scientist, Georg Forster, who had accompanied his father, Johann Reinhold Forster, on James Cook's expedition of 1772-1775. The Mulovsky expedition was prevented from leaving the Baltic by the outbreak of war with Sweden in 1787.
Following cancellation of the expedition, Haenke applied to fill the position of Professor of Natural History at the University of Vilna (Vilnius) which Forster had vacated in anticipation of taking up his new post with the Russians, but when preparation of the Malaspina Expedition was announced, he expressed interest in joining it. A long journey from Vienna brought Haenke by way of Munich, Strasbourg, Paris, Bordeaux, Biarritz and Madrid (where he was formally received into the expedition as “Naturalist-Botánico de Su Magestad”) to Cadiz just five hours after the two ships of the expedition, the Descubierta and Atrevida, had set sail from that port. He sailed on a following vessel, intending to catch up with the expedition in Buenos Aires. This vessel was wrecked close to Montevideo, and the intrepid Haenke was forced to swim for the shore, salvaging from his luggage (it is said) only his copy of Linnaeus, which he carried in a nightcap. Having in this way missed the expedition again, he hired guides for a trek overland across the pampas and Andes to Santiago de Chile, where he caught up with Malaspina in April 1790.
Thereafter he continued with the expedition during its visits to Peru, Guayaquil, Panama, Guatemala, Mexico, the North West American coast, California, Mexico again, Guam, the Philippines, New Zealand, New South Wales and Vavao, arriving again at Callao, Peru in June 1793. Here he left the ships to again cross overland to Buenos Aires, with the intention of undertaking botanical and other scientific work along the way. Instead, he stayed in Peru, continuing to work as Royal Botanist. In 1810 he was ordered to return to Spain but the political situation caused him to decide to remain in Peru, where he had an estate at Yuracaré, near Cochabamba, in what is now Bolivia. He continued his botanical and other scientific work, remaining in regular contact with his homeland through a Bohemian glass trading company. He died in Cochabamba of accidental poisoning (it is said) in 1816, aged 54.
After he joined it in Santiago de Chile on 2 April 1790 the Malaspina Expedition lasted another three years during which Haenke collected several thousand plants. During the expedition’s stay at Sydney Cove, New South Wales, in Mar-April 1793, he carried out observations and collection relating to the natural history of the place, as he reported to the colony’s patron, Sir Joseph Banks.
Haenke's work in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile finally contributed to the creation of the smallpox vaccine. During his expedition through the Atacama desert, he discovered a method for transforming Chile saltpeter and Potassium chloride into Potassium nitrate. Furthermore, he improved explosives and gunpowder, giving his results to the Spanish army.
- Carl Bořivoj Presl Reliquiae Haenkeanae : seu descriptiones et icones plantarum, quas in America meridionali et boreali, in insulis Philippinis et Marianis collegit Thaddaeus Haenke. J.G. Calve, Prague, 1830.Botanicus
- Memoranda by Jacquin and Born in the Hofkammerarchiv (Wien), Nr.5356, Litorale F.104; cited in Franz von Pollack-Parnau, "Eine österreich-ostindische Handelskompanie, 1775-1785: Beitrag zur österreichische Wirtschaftsgeschichte unter Maria Theresa und Joseph II", Vierteljahrsschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgesichte, Beiheft 12, Stuttgart, 1927, S.88.
- E.M. Kronfeld, Park und Garten von Schönbrunn, Wien, 1923, S.75-76; cited in Josef Haubelt, "Haenke, Born y Banks", Ibero-Americana Pragensia, Vol.IV, 1970, p.182.
- Bolts à Castries, 25 de janvier 1785 and 9 de avril 1785, Rigsarkivet (Stockholm), Handel och Sjöfart, 193, “W. Bolts’ forslag until kolonisation af en ö….1786-1790”; cited in Holden Furber, “In the Footsteps of a German ‘Nabob’: William Bolts in the Swedish Archives”, The Indian Archives, vol.12, nos.1-2, January–December 1958, p.16.
- Ал.П. Соколовъ, «Приготовленіе кругосвђтной экспедиціи 1787 года, подъ начальствомъ Муловскаго», Записки Гидрографического Департамента Морекого Министерства, часть VI, 1848г., стр.142-91. [A.P. Sokolov, "The Preparation of the 1787 round-the-world expedition commanded by Mulovsky", Zapiski Gidrogaficheskovo Departamenta Morekovo Ministerstva, part 6, 1848, pp.142-91].
- Museo Naval y Ministerio de Defensa, La Expedición Malaspina, 1789-1794, Tomo IV, Victoria Ibáñez, Trabajos Cientificos y Correspondencia de Tadeo Haenke, Madrid y Barcelona, Lunwerg Editores, 1992.
- Robert J. King and Victoria Ibáñez, "A Letter from Thaddaeus Haenke to Sir Joseph Banks, Sydney Cove, 15 April 1793", Archives of Natural History, vol.23, no.2, 1996, pp.255-259.
- BGBM: Sonderausstellung 2004 at www.bgbm.org
- "Author Query for 'Haenke'". International Plant Names Index.
- Kühnel, Josef: Thaddäus Haenke: Leben und Wirken eines Forschers. – Munich: Lerche, 1960 (German)
- Markstein, Heinz: Der sanfte Konquistador: die Geschichte des Thaddäus Xaverius Peregrinus Haenke. – Stuttgart: Publ. Freies Geistesleben, 1991. – ISBN 3-7725-1118-X (German)
- Renée Gicklhorn, Thaddäus Haenkes Reisen und Arbeiten in Südamerika. Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1966.
- María Victoria Ibáñez Montoya, Trabajos cientificos y correspondencia de Tadeo Haenke, Ministerio de Defensa & Museo Naval, La Expedicion Malaspina, 1789-1794, Tomo 4, Madrid, Barcelona: Lunwerg Editores, 1992.
- Renée Gicklhorn, “Neue Dokumente zum Beginn der Forschungsreisen von Thaddäus Haenke”, Phyton 14 (1972), pp. 296-299.
- Josef Haubelt, “Haenke, Born y Banks”, Ibero-Americana Pragensia 4 (1970), pp. 179-197.
- Victoria Ibañez and Robert J. King, “A Letter from Thaddeus Haenke to Sir Joseph Banks”, Archives of Natural History 23 (1996), pp. 255–260.
- (English) (German) (Spanish) multilingual project « Mit Böhmen zum Meer: Thaddäus Haenke»
- (German) ZDF-Page regarding the documentation of Haenke's life "Söhne der Wüste: Durch die Atacama"
- (German) History of the Haenke-portrait by Vinzenz Grüner, discussing its use and modifications by nationalists
- (German) Vom Amazonas nach Leipzig und London
- Biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
- "Haenke, Thaddeus". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. 1892