Fabricius, Johann Christian

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Fabricius, Johann Christian

(b. Tønder, South Jutland, Denmark, 7 January 1745; d. Kiel, Germany, 3 March 1808)


Fabricius was undoubtedly one of the most distinguished entomologists and ranks with Carl de Geer, P. A. Latreille, A. G. Oliver, and other prominent specialists of earlier times. In many respects he surpassed them, especially as a theoretical natural scientist. Linnaeus, whose most important contribution hardly lay in the field of entomology, was full of admiration for him—a rather unusual attitude for the Nestor of Swedish science—and his colleagues throughout the world expressed great respect for his work. Quantitatively speaking, the most important part of Fabricius’ work was concentrated in the field of descriptive systematics (taxonomy); qualitatively speaking, a very important section of his work fell into the advanced theoretical area of natural history. This is shown clearly in his Philosophia enromologica (1778), Betrachtungen über die aligemeinen Einrichtungen in der Natur (1781), and Resultate naturhistorischer Vorlesungen (1804).

Two basic principles guided Fabricius’ approach to entomological systematics: he distinguished, on the one hand, between the artificial and the natural characters; and, on the other hand, he stressed the importance of the various structures of the mouth. The terminology he applied to categories of higher systems differed somewhat from modern terminology: he used the words “classis” for “order” and “ordo” for what we call “family”; furthermore, he founded his system on the genus and the species, which in his opinion constituted the main bases. It seemed especially important to Fabricius that genera were the natural combinations of related species. He believed that “classes” and “ordines” were artificial concepts. He seems to have understood that even genera can be classified into the natural system—the nearest equivalent to our present ldquo;families”—but he probably understood that the time was not yet ripe, that scientific knowledge and general outlook were too narrow for such classification. He thought (not without hesitation) of one large system based on the structure of the mouth organs as being the natural system (see Philosophia entomologica, p. 85; cf p. 97).

It was Fabricius’ greatest ambition to build a system based on the naturally defined genera, without doubt a definite and new contribution to insect systematics. He considered this more important than a dry description of the various species. In the latter area, however, his contributions are imposing: he named and described some 10,000 insects.

Less known than Fabricius’ contributions in the field of insect systematics are his evolutionistic ideas and speculations. He considered systematics to be a means to understanding important scientific functions and phenomena in general. In a frequently quoted sentence he said: “As we would not call a man learned because he can read, so we would not call a man a scientist who knows nothing but the system” (Resultate natur-historischer Vorlesungen, p. 138). Many of his ideas concerning evolution sound amazingly modern. For instance, he considered it possible that a species could be formed through mixing existing species (i.e., some form of hybridization) and through morphological adaptation and modification. In his opinion, such phenomena caused an unbelievable wealth of forms and species of living organisms. Fabricius could not believe in haphazard creation and definitely thought that man originated from the great apes (Resultate, p. 208). He also discussed the influence of environment on the development of the species, as well as some selective phenomena (females prefer the strongest males, etc.). Henriksen even called Fabricius the “Father of Lamarckism” (1932, p. 80).

Fabricius did not lead the life of a sedentary scientist. He did much traveling, both on the Continent and in Great Britain. He studied for two years under Linnaeus in Uppsala (1762–1764), traveled in Germany on several occasions, in Holland (1766–1767), in Scotland, France, and Italy (1768–1769), and visited London during the summers of 1772–1775 and even later. He also went to Norway, Austria, Switzerland, and Russia. On these trips he came in close contact with the best-known scientists of his time and visited the greatest museums. Fabricius was an extrovert who was liked and appreciated everywhere, and his personality helped to create a fruitful mutual exchange of information and ideas.

Fabricius was professor of natural science and economics, first at the University of Copenhagen, then at Kiel. His extensive collections, as well as the material he described and named, are in the Fabricius collections of the Zoological Museum of Copenhagen, a great part on loan from Kiel. Other collections are in Paris at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Bosc Collection), the British Museum (Natural History [Banks Collection]), and in Glasgow (Hunter Collection).


I. Original Works. Fabricius’ major writings are Systema entomologiae (Flensburg-Leipzig, 1775); Genera insectorum (Kiel, n.d. [preface dated 26 Dec. 1776]); Philosophia entomologica (Hamburg-Kiel, 1778); Betrachtungen über die allgemeinen Einrichtungen in der Natur (Hamburg, 1781); Species insectorum, 2 vols. (Hamburg-Kiel, 1781); Mantissa insectorum, 2 vols. (Copenhagen, 1787); Entmologia systematica, 4 vols. and supp. (Copenhagen, 1792–1798); Systema eleutheratorum, 2 vols. (Kiel, 1801); Systema rhyngotorum (Brunswick, 1803); Resultate naturhistorishcer Vorlesungen (Kiel, 1804; repr. page for page, Kiel, 1818); Systema piezatorum (Brunswick, 1804); Systema antilatirum Brunswick, 1805); Systema glossatorum (Brunswick, 1807), only 112 pp. printed, three known copies; facs. ed. by F. Bryk (Neubrandenburg, 1938); and “Autobiographie des Naturforschers Fabricius,” in Kieler Blätter, 1 (Kiel, 1819), 88–117, trans, from the Danish, with notes and commentary by F. W. Hope, in Transactions of the Entomological Society of London, 4 (1845), 1–16.

II. Secondary Literature. On Fabricius and his work, see K. L. Henriksen, “Oversight over Dansk Entomologis Historie,” in Entomologiske Meddelelser (Copenhagen), 15 (1922–1937); J. Schuster, “Linné und Fabricius. Zu ihrem Leben und Werk,” in Münchener Beiträge zur Geschichte und Literatur der Naturwissenschaften und Medizin, 4 (1928); R. A. Staig, The Fabrician Types of Insects in the Hunterian Collection at Glasgow University, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1931–1940); S. L. Tuxen “The Entomologist, J. C. Fabricius,” in Annual Review of Entomology, 12 (1967), 1–14; and E. Zimsen, The Type Material of J. C. Fabricius (Copenhagen, 1964).

Bengt-Olof Landin