Forsskål (also Forssk

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Forsskål (also Forsskåhl or ForskåL), Peter

(b. Helsinki, Finland [then Sweden], 11 January 1732; d. Yarīm, Yemen, 11 July 1763)


Forsskål was one of Linnaeus’ most gifted pupils and had an unusually broad spectrum of interests. During his university years—1751–1753 in Uppsala, 1753–1756 in Göttingen, and 1756–1760 back in Uppsala—he did not confine himself to natural history; he also mastered economics and philosophy, theology, and the Oriental languages. The combination of knowledge of Arabic and botany made Forsskål unusually suited for the scientific expedition that led to both his fame and his death. In Denmark, under the sponsorship of King Frederick V, a major research voyage to Arabia was planned; its large scientific staff was to include a naturalist, an astronomer, a philologist, a physician, and an artist. Forsskål was accepted as a member of the expedition, received the title of professor, and moved to Copenhagen in 1760. In January 1761 the expedition departed; traveling via Marseilles, Malta, and Constantinople, it reached Egypt that autumn. In October 1762 the voyage continued toward southern Arabia, where Forsskål worked to complete his collections until his death from malaria in July 1763.

Forsskål’s contribution to botany consists of a single work: the Flora aegyptiaco-arabica, which was saved for posterity by the only surviving member of the expedition, Carsten Niebuhr, and was published at Copenhagen in 1775. This work is of importance both for the greatly increased knowledge it provided about the vegetation in the areas visited (Forsskål proposed fifty new genera, half of which are still valid) and for the valuable and original morphological observations that are often found in the descriptions of the species. But today Forsskål’s fame is based mainly upon the introduction to the Flora, in which he surveys the phytogeography of Egypt. By comparing the Scandinavian and the Egyptian flora he gave a precise characterization of Egyptian vegetation and clarified its relation to climate and soil. In this respect he can be seen as an often unfairly neglected precursor of Alexander von Humboldt.


I. Original Works. Forsskål’s most important publication is botany in Flora aegyptiaco-arabica sive descriptiones plantarum quas per Aegyptum inferiorum et Arabiam felicem detexit, illustravit, Carsten Niebuhr, ed. (Copenhagen, 1775). A MS of a more general character was published in Swedish as Resa till lyckige Arabien (Uppsala, 1950).

II. Secondary Literature. On Forsskål or his work, see C. Christensen, Naturforskeren Per Forskål. Hans rejse til Aegypten og Arabien 1761–63 og hans botaniske arbejder og samlinger (Copenhagen, 1918); B. Hildebrand and E. Matinolli, “Peter Forsskål,” in Svensk biografiskt lexikon, XVI (Stockholm, 1965), 359–362; and E. Matinolli, Petter Forsskål (Turku, 1960), in Finnish, with a summary in German.

Gunnar Eriksson