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Chamisso, Adelbert von

CHAMISSO, ADELBERT VON

(b. Ante parish, Marne, France, ca. 27 January 1781; d. Berlin, Germany, 21 August 1838)

natural history, botany.

Adelbert von Chamisso is known –if at all– by most readers as the creator of Peter Schlemihl, the man who bartered away his shadow. In Germany he is still a beloved poet whose verses were set to music by composers such as Schumann and Grieg. For scientists he is the naturalist who explored Pacific shores many years before Darwin, bringing back rich botanical collections, incidentally naming the California poppy and leaving his own name to an Alaskan island.

Chamisso was a younger son in an aristocratic provincial French family of the Champagne, just west of the Argonne forest. His father, Count Louis-Marie de Chamisso de Boncourt, was descended from established minor nobility with traditions of loyal military service to the crown; his mother, born Marie Anne Gargam, from wealthy bourgeois. The boy was christened Louis-Charles Adélaïde on 31 January 1781; in later life he always signed himself Adelbert. His early years were spent at the Château de Boncourt.

In 1792 the family abandoned Boncourt and dispersed northward. Not until 1796 were they enabled, by courtesy of the Prussian crown, to reunite and settle in Berlin. Adelbert, who had been painting china to help support the family, first became a court page and then, in 1798, entered military school. He was commissioned lieutenant in the Prussian army in 1801. His regiment remained in Berlin until the campaign of 1805–1806, when it occupied Hameln and, after the defeat at Jena, was surrendered to the Dutch. Chamisso, tortured by the possibility of fighting his own countrymen, was relieved to be released to France.

Between 1806 and 1812, in the uneasy peace and subsequent rearming of Germany, Chamisso, more displaced than ever, unsuccessfully sought employment in France (1806–1807 and 1810–1811), before returning to Berlin. Originally his ambitions were all literary; in 1811, however, at Coppet on Lake Geneva as guest of Madame de Staël, he began intensive botanizing. In the fall of 1812 he returned to Berlin to enter the new university and for the next three years followed medical and scientific courses.

In 1815 Chamisso obtained a berth as naturalist on the brig Rurik, commanded by Otto von Kotze-bue and sent under Russian flag to explore in the Pacific. Setting off via Plymouth, they crossed the Atlantic and rounded Cape Horn. Despite very difficult conditions, Chamisso was able to collect and observe, notably in the Marshall and Hawaiian islands, Kamchatka, the Aleutians, and California. The expedition returned via the Philippines, the Cape of Good Hope, and London, arriving safely at Saint Petersburg in the fall of 1818.

Chamisso returned to Berlin with botanical collections and notebooks, received an honorary doctorate, and was appointed adjunct curator of the Royal Botanical Gardens in 1819. The rest of his life was spent as a scientific official, succeeding to the curatorship of garden and herbarium in 1833 upon the departure of his chief and good friend, D. F. L. von Schlechtendal. He was elected to the Berlin Society of Friends of Natural History, the Leopoldina, the Imperial Society of Naturalists of Moscow, and in 1835 to the Berlin Academy of Sciences. During this period he had great success as a poet and popular writer. In 1832, with Gustav Schwab, he undertook editing the Deutscher Musenalmanach, essentially as an elder statesman of German poetry.

Chamisso married Antonic Piaste in 1820, settling into a cheerful domestic life and raising seven children. In 1833 he suffered a severe pulmonary illness from which he never fully recovered. Working intensively between bouts of fever, he died in 1838 at the age of fifty-seven.

The foregoing outline requires commentary. In childhood his first interests had been those of the naturalist. In Berlin, exposed for the first time to cosmopolitan scholarship, he soon became a child of the age, an egalitarian disciple of Rousseau, with literary ambitions in the German Romantic vein. He made military service tolerable by using his leisure for study, reading, and learning to compose in German. He was welcomed in literary circles, where he made warm friendships that attached him to Germany. In his twenties he wrote much, essayed many genres, but finished little and published almost nothing that he later cared to acknowledge.

Chamisso’s early impulse toward natural science was evidently catalyzed into action by various circumstances. Most notable were a visit in 1810 with Alexander von Humboldt to Paris and the hospitality and stimulating conversation of Madame de Staël at Chaumont-sur-Loire and later in her exile at Coppet. He once attributed his firm direction toward botany at Coppet to a chance remark in a friend’s letter. Surely however the companionship of Auguste de Staël, elder son of his hostess and an accomplished botanist, as well as the richly diversified terrain, served to fix his attention not only on plants but on their distribution.

That his decision, once taken, resolved his inner uncertainties was soon clear. In the summer of 1813, perhaps bored with unrelieved botany, he composed his masterpiece of fantasy and self-reconciliation, Peter Schlemihl’s wundersame Geschichte. First published in 1814, the tale was an immediate success, and was widely translated. On returning to Berlin from the Pacific, no longer an enemy alien but an author and scientist, Chamisso continued to intertwine poetic fantasy with meticulous science, without ever confusing the two.

In his scientific role, also, Chamisso presents contrasting aspects. The bulk of his technical publications were in botanical taxonomy, written jointly with Schlechtendal and to be found in Linnaea, the journal launched by the latter in 1826. A few geological articles appeared in appropriate journals. Of his equally few zoological publications, one contained a real discovery, that of alternation of generations in salps. De Salpa (Berlin, 1819) includes an accurate identification of the aforesaid phenomenon, which was only later to be recognized in other animal and in most plant groups. The publication was a special one, illustrated with beautiful lithographs of Chamisso’s accurate and finely executed drawings. In the preface, tribute is paid to the collaboration of the zoologist J. F. Eschscholtz, ship’s doctor on the Rurik. Chamisso always felt himself something of an amateur, seeking criticism and assurance from others of more academic experience.

By contrast to his dry, formal, and diffident approach to technical science, Chamisso’s narrative accounts of the Rurik voyage show him at his best, an active, keen, and humorous observer in fields as various as biogeography, ecology, meteorology, oceanography, linguistics, and ethnology–not to mention botany, zoology, and geology. He was the first to propose floating fruits as agents for populating islands and to ascribe the coloration of seawater to pigmented microorganisms. He was also a born ethnologist whose geniality transcended communication barriers. He not only joined natives in their ceremonies and games but conscientiously collected vocabularies. His last project, unfinished at his death, was a dictionary of the Hawaiian language.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

I. Original Works See Günther Schmid, Chamissoals Naturforscher. Eine Bibliographie (Leipzig, 1942), for the numerous technical and scientific works. The literary works, poetry and prose, were collected as Adelbert von Chamissos Werke, Julius Hitzig, ed., 6 vols. (Leipzig, 1836–1839), begun under Chamisso’s supervision–the 5th ed., Friedrich Palm, ed. (Berlin, 1864), contains some additional material; Werke in zwei Bänden, Ulrike Wehres and Wolfgang Deninger, eds. (Zurich, 1971), is less complete. Peter Schlemihl’s wundersame Geschichte (Nuremburg, 1814), has been reprinted numerous times, recently with concluding essay by Thomas Mann, Insel Taschenbuch no. 27 (Frankfurt, 1973).

II. Secondary Literature See Louis Choris, Voyage pittoresque authur du monde (Paris, 1820); E. du Bois-Reymond, Adelbert von Chamisso als Nsturforcher (Leipzig, 1889); Werner Feudel, Adelbert von Chamisso. Leben und Werk (Leipzig, 1971); Otto von Kotzebue, A Voyage of Discovery Into the South Sea and Beering’s Straits, H. E. Lloyd trans., 3 vols. (London, 1821); August Carl Mahr, The Visit of the” Rurik “to San Francisco in 1816 (Stanford, Calif., 1932); M. Möbius, “Chamisso als Botaniker,” in Botaniches Zentralblatt. Beihefte, 36 , Abt. 2 (1918), 270–306; René Riegel, Adalbert de Chamisso. Sa vie et son oeuvre (Paris, 1934); and D. F. L. von Schlechtendal, “Den Andenken an Adelbert von Chamisso aLs Botaniker, “in Linnaea, 13 (1839), 93–112.

Dorothea Rudnick

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Chamisso, Adelbert von

Adelbert von Chamisso (Louis Charles Adelaide de Chamisso) (ä´dəlbĕrt fən shəmĬ´sō), 1781–1838, German poet and naturalist, b. Château de Boncourt, France. He served as page at the court of William II of Prussia and, after army service and travels, became keeper of the royal botanical gardens. He edited (1804–6) the Musenalmanach and was a member of Mme de Staël's circle. His sentimental poetic cycle Frauenliebe und Leben (1830) was set to music by Schumann. Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (1814), his tale of a man who sold his shadow to the devil, has become legend. He also wrote plays, an account of his travels in the Pacific (1836), and a work on linguistics (1837).

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Chamisso, Adelbert von

Chamisso, Adelbert von

also known, as Louis Charles Adélaïde Chamisso (b. Château de Boncourt, Champagne, France, 30 January 1781; d. Berlin, Germany, 21 August 1838), botany.

For a detailed study of his life and work, see Supplement.

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