Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich

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Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich

(b. Gotha, Germany, 11 May 1752; d. Gottiigen, Germany, 22 January 1840)

natural history, anthropology, comparative anatomy.

Blumenbach was born into a cultured, wealthy Protestant family. His father, Heinrich, was the assistant headmaster at the Gymnasium Ernestinum in Gotha; his mother. Charlotte Eleonore Hedwig Buddeus, was the daughter of a high government official in Gotha and the granddaughter of a Jena theologian. Thus, from a very early age, Blumenbach was exposed to both literature and natural science. After completing his Gymnasium studies in 1769, he studied at the universities of Jena and Göttingen, and received the M.D. in 1775 at the university of Göttingen.

At Jena. Blumenbach attended the lectures of the mineralogist Johann Ernst Immanuel Walch, the author of Naturgeschichte der Versteinerungen, which interested him in the study of fossils. In Göttingen, he studied under Christian W. Buttner, who lectured on natural history, beginning with man, and fascinated Blumenbach with vivid accounts of travel and foreign peoples, encouraged him to write his doctoral dissertation, and gave the impetus to start his widely admired anthropological-ethnographic collection. His dissertation. De generis humani varietate nativa liber which became world-famous and is considered one of the basic works on anthropology, published for the first time in 1776 (and perhaps as early as 1775). In 1776 he was appointed cur Of the natural history collection and extraordinary professor at (Göttingen, and in 1778 he was named full professor of medicine.

Through his marriage in 1778 Blumenbach became the son-in-law of Georg Brandes, who held an influential position in the administration of the University of Giottingen, and a brother-in-law of Christian Gottlieb Heyne, theclassics scholar. These connections helped strengthen Blumenbach’s influence at the university. In 1816 he was appointed professor primarius of the Faculty of Medicine. In 1776 he had become a member of the Konigliche Societat der Wissensechaften zu Giottingen, and in 1812 he became us permanent secretary. In addition. Blumenbach was either a regular or a corresponding member of more than seventy other academies and scientific organizations, including the institut de France, the Royal Society and Linnean Society of London, the Konigliche Akademie zu Berlin, the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg, and the American Philosophical Society. He carried on extensive correspondence with scientists, the most noteworthy of whom were Albrecht von Haller, Peter Camper, and Charles Bonnet. He was unusually successful as a teacher, and many of his students who later became famous, such as Karl Ernst von Hoff, claimed that Blumenbach had given them the decisive impetus for the formation of their ideas.

Blumenbach’s fame is based mainly on his role in the founding of scientific anthropology. He was one of the first scientists to view man as an object of natural history, and saw in him “the most perfect of all domesticated animals” On the other hand, he gave special emphasis to the gap between man and animal and attacked all political or social abuses of anthropological ideas, in particular the notion that black men were on a lower level of humanity than white men. In his dissertation one can find the first reliable survey of the characteristics and distribution of the human races; its most significant points were included in almost all later anthropological classifications.

Blumenbach’s ideas on Bildungstrieb (Nisus formativus) made a great impression on his contemporaries (and later scientists as well). They are of historical significance because they offered some new arguments in favor of epigenesis to the conflict between it and performance. However, they were very short-lived and did not exert any lasting influence.

Blumenbach’s lectures and his textbook on comparative anatomy were epoch-making, Blumenbach believed that he was the first, at least in Germany, to lecture on comparative anatomy, and that his textbook was the first “to have appeared that dealt with the entire area of anatome comparata” This assumption was most probably correct, but one must not overlook the fact that his anatome comparata had less to do with homology than it did with anatome anatome comparata, i.e., comparative physiological anatomy. Nevertheless, this textbook was without question a milestone in the history of this subject.

The Handbuch der Naturgeschichte, which went through many editions and was translated into many languages, exerted an even greater influence on the advancement of science. Although Blumenbach tended to follow the Linnaean system, this work ushered in a new era in natural history. It contains an abundance of new or hitherto insufficiently evaluated morphological and ecological findings, from which Blumenbach drew conclusions that led to a more modern (biological and evolutionary) concept of the plant and animal kingdoms. He concluded from the spread of certain parasites found only in the domestic pig that such parasites did not exist as long as pigs were not domesticated and that they could therefore not possibly have existed since the creation of the world. Such ideas, revolutionary in their day, were carefully presented in various places in the Handbuch, and were demonstrated by concrete examples.

In connection with the morphological analysis and geological dating of fossil plants and animals, Blumenbach developed ideas that were still unknown to most of the scientists of his day and men touched upon by only a few others, such as Soulavie. He came to the conclusion that there had been groups of plants and animals, now extinct, which could not be classified in the system of recent forms of life, and he even attempted to draw up a geological-palcontological time scale.

Blumenbach developed these ideas more deeply and in greater detail in his Beytrage zur Naturge-schiihte, still a valuable source for historians of science. In addition to some interesting anthropological essays (e.g. on the alleged appearance of a Homo ferus), the Beytrage contains several essays on the “variability” of nature, a concept that was not understood very well. It also showed that the earth, with all its flora and fauna, had a very long history. Blumenbach was one of the earliest thinker recognize the “historicalness” Of nature, and therefore occupies an important place in the history of evolution theory.


I. Original Works. Blumenbach’s major writings are De generis humani varietate nativa liber (Göttingen, 1776); Handbuch der Naturgeschichte (Göttingen, 1779; 12th ed., 1830); “Uber den Bildungstrieb (Nisus formativus) und seinen Einfluss auf die Generation und Reproduction,” in Gottingisches Magazin der Wissenschaften2 (1780), 240 ff.;“Uber den Bildungstrieb und das Zeugungsgeschaft (Göttingen, 1781); Geschichte und Beschreibung der Knochen des menschlichen Korpers (Göttingen, 1786); Handbuch der vergleichenden Anatomie (Göttingen, 1805); and Beytrage zur Naturgeschichte, 2 vols, (Göttingen, 1806–1811).

II. Secondary Literature. Works dealing with Blumenbach are Walter Baron, “Evolutionary Ideas in the Writings of J.F. Blumenbach (1752–1840),” in Ithaca 1962 (Paris, 1962), pp. 945–947; Walter Baron and B. Sticker, “Ansatze zur historischen Denkweise in der Natur-forschung an der Wende vom 18, zum 19, Jahrhundert. I: Die Anshauungen Johann Friedrich Blumenbachs uber die Geschichtlichkeit der Natur,” in Sudhoffs Archiv, 47 (1963). 1926; K. E. A. von Hoi]’. Erinnerung an Blumen-bach’s Verdiensie um die Geologie bey der funfzigjahrigen Jubelfeyer seines Lehramtes am 24, Februar 1826 (Goiha, 1826): K. F. H. Marx, Zum Andenken an Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Eine Gedächtniss-Rede gehalten in der Sitzung der Königliehen Societät der Wissenschaften den Februar 1840 (Göttingen, 1840). Hans Plisehke. “Johann Friedrich Blumenbachs Einfluss auf die Entdeckungsreisen seiner Zeit.” in Abhandlungen der K. Gesellsehaft der Wissensthujlen: zu Göttingen, Phil. Hist. Kl. 3rd ser. no. 20 (Göttingen, 1937); and Johann St. Patter. Versuch einer academischen Gelehrten-Gesehiehie an der Georg-Augustus-Universitat zu Göttingen. pt. 2 (1788), pp. 148–149; pt. 3(1820), pp. 303–307; Pt. 4 (1838), pp 421–424. See also Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, II (1875) 748–751.

Walter Baron

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