Czerski, Jan

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Czerski, Jan

(b. Svolna, Vitebsk, Russia [now Byelorussia, U. S. S. R.] 15 May 1845; d. confluence of Prova and Kolyma Rivers, Siberia, Russia, 25 June 1892)

geology, zoology, Siberian exploration.

After the death of his father, Dominik Czerski, a rich landowner, Czerski was brought up by his mother. He attended the Gymnasium and the Institute for Gentry in Vilna. After the outbreak of the Polish insurrection in 1863, Czerski ran away from school to join a rebel regiment, but shortly afterward became ill and was captured by the Russians. For taking part in the insurrection he was sentenced to exile in a penal army regiment stationed in Siberia. After six years of service in a battalion at Omsk he was released from the army in 1869; his health was completely ruined and he was severely neurasthenic.

Czerski stayed in Omsk for the next two years, supporting himself by giving private lessons. During his period of forced army service he had devoted all his free time to the study of science, especially the natural science. An engineer named Marczewski and the owner of an extensive library, W. Kwiatkowski—both of whom were Poles living in Omsk—helped him in his self–education, as did the Siberian explorer G. N. Potanin.

In 1871 Czerski obtained permission to settle in Irkutsk, where he was helped by two Polish deportees, the geologist A. Czekanowski and the zoologist B. Dybowski. With their support he gained the position of custodian of the natural science collections in the Siberian branch of the Russian Geographical Society—the only scientific institution in Siberia. Not long afterward he began organizing several expeditions. Another exile of 1863, the chemist M. Hartung, also took part in them. The purposes of these expeditions were to carry out geological studies, to make use of fossils and archeological materials, and to collect zoological specimens, ethnological observations, and ethnographical materials. From 1872 on Czerski published the results of his studies in the journals of the Russian Geographical Society; later he published in those of the Russian Academy of Sciences as well. Within twenty years he presented some eighty articles, bulletins, and reports drawn from, studies that he had carried out, as well as several monographs. In 1879 he published a monograph concerning the remains of Quaternary mammals that he had found in the cave Nizhnyaya Udinska; and in 1891 a comprehensive paper on the remains of Quaternary mammals found during the Novosibirsk expedition of 1885–1886.

Czerski’s geological studies of 1877–1880 dealt with Lake Baykal; he published the results of these in several papers. A monograph published in 1886 (with a geological map) synthesizes his studies on Baykal and included an attempt to explain the origin of that enigmatic lake.

In spite of the excellent results of his scientific work, for which he three times received the Gold Medal of the Russian Geological Society, Czerski was forced to resign from his post in the Siberian branch. In 1885, through the financial aid of J. Zawisza, a Warsaw archaeologist, Czerski was able to move to St. Petersburg. In the course of his journey there he made observations from Baykal to the Urals; these were published in 1888.

In St. Petersburg, Czerdki worked in the geological museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences. There he received extensive scientific observations from Siberia—for the most part collected by political deportees—which served him well in writing his addenda to K. Ritter’s The Geography of Asia, which appeared in two volumes (1893, 1895) after Czerski’s death. He was also engaged in preparing for publication the diaries from the expeditions of Czekanowski, as well as in putting in orders the geological collections made during these expeditions. This work awakened in him a deep interest in the great Siberian rivers and a desire to continue the studies if Czekanowski. In the summer of 1891 Czerski therefore began his last expedition to the north. With his wife, Marfa, and his twelve–year–old son, Aleksandr, he traveled on horseback from Yakutsk to Vierkhniokolymska. The server subarctic winter brought the party to a halt and only at the end of May 1892 was it possible to travel by boat down the Kolyma River. During this winter, however, the state of Czerski’s health deteriorated to such an extent that it became clear that he would be unable to lead the expedition to its conclusion. He worked on detailed instructions for his wife on the continuation of his studies and, despite weakness and exhaustion, continued his observations. On 25 June he had a hemorrhage and died; he was buried where the Omolon River Flows into the Kolyma, and his wife led the expedition to its end.

Czerski was responsible for the elucidation of the geology of Baykal; for the discovery and elaboration of a rich fauna of Quaternary mammals from Siberia and of Paleolithic occurrences of man in this region; for the assemblage of valuable zoological, geological, and ethnographical collections; and for the first synthetic geological cross section of Siberia from Baykal to the Urals. A mountain chain in the Zabaykalsk region and a range of hills in northern Yakutia, on the upper course of the Kolyma, bear his name; Czerski Peak rises from the northwest shore of Lake Baykal, and the valley of the Kandat River is also named after him.


I. Original Works. A list of Czerski’s publications is in R. Fleszarowa, Retrospektywna bibliografia geologiczna polski, pt. 2 (Warsaw, 1966). A complete bibliography and biographical notice are included in the collective work (in Russian) of the Siberia branch of the Geological Society of Russia, I. D. Czerski, Unpublished Articles, Letters, and Diaries. Articles on I. D. Czerski and A. I. Czerski (Irkutsk, 1956).

II. Secondary Literature. In addition to the above works, see also B. Dybowski’s discussion of Czerski’s work in his paper on Siberia and Kamchatka (Lvov, 1899) and in his diaries (Lovo, 1930). In 1892, on the occasion of Czerski’s death, a series of memoirs—by I. Kuznietsov, V. Obrushev, S. Nikitin, F. Chernyshev, and others—appeared in a variety of Russian scientific journals. Biographies of Czerski include T. Turkowski, in Polski stownik biograficzny, vol. IV (Krakow, 1938) and Wiadomości Muzeum Ziemi, vol.I (Warsaw–Vilna, 1938).

StanisŁaw Czarniecki