Forster, (Johann) Georg Adam

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Forster, (Johann) Georg Adam

(b. Nassenhuben [or Nassenhof], near Danzig, Germany [now Gdansk, Poland], 27 November 1754; d. Paris, France, 10 January 1794)

natural philosophy, geography.

Forster was the oldest son of Johann Reinhold Forster and Justina Elisabeth Forster. A precocious child, he was first educated by his father and acquired from him a lively and practical interest in natural history, as well as a thorough grounding in the numerous philological disciplines and languages which Johann Reinhold had mastered. In 1765 he accompanied his father on the survey of the German colonies on the Volga steppes and, for a short period while in Russia, attended the Petrisschule founded by the eminent geographer A. F. Büsching. In 1766 he went to England with his father and in 1767 published his first work, a translation of M. V. Lomonosov’s history of Russia. By the age of thirteen he had a command of most of the major languages of Europe.

While his father was in Warrington, Lancashire, Forster was apprenticed to a merchant in London. In the autumn of 1767 he joined his father at the Dissenters’ Academy, where he continued his own studies and assisted with the instruction. He also aided his father in the translation of Bougainville’s Voyage autour du monde. When the elder Forster received the commission to sail on Cook’s second voyage (1772–1775), he insisted that his son accompany him as assistant and artist. Afterward the younger Forster published his first major work, A Voyage Round the World (London, 1777). As a result of this work, issued without official sanction, Forster became engaged in a spirited polemic with William Wales, the astronomer on the voyage, over the ethics of publishing an independent narrative in defiance of the Admiralty. The Voyage, although deliberately lacking the systematic and scholarly presentation of geographic and scientific material found in his father’s Observations, started a new genre of literary-scientific travel narratives, a genre ably developed later by Alexander von Humboldt, whom Forster influenced greatly by his work and ideas. In 1776 the Forsters issued Characteres generum plantarum, and in 1777 the younger Forster was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Although his preference was to continue his studies in England, Forster was forced by his family’s circumstances to seek positions for himself and his father in Germany, and in 1779 he was appointed professor of natural history at the Collegium Carolinium in Kassel. He was soon in contact with the prominent men of science and letters in Germany, including J. F. Blumenbach, G. C. Lichtenberg, and S. T. Sömmering. Forster was particularly attracted by the intellectual climate of Göttingen. In 1784 he was appointed to the chair of natural history at Vilna, Poland, and the following year he married Therese Heyne, daughter of the eminent Göttingen philologist C. G. Heyne. Forster collaborated with Lichtenberg in editing and writing the Göttingisches Magazin der Wissenschaften and Litteratur, and he also published extensively in the Göttingisches Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen.

In Vilna, although isolated from the mainstream of European thought, Forster strove to correspond with men of science throughout Europe. In 1786 he published his M.D. dissertation (conferred by Halle), De plantis esculentis insularum Oceani Australis commentatio botanica (Berlin-Halle) and Florulae insularum Australium prodromus (Göttingen). The latter work was seen by Forster as the basis for a more comprehensive botanical work on the Pacific area, the “Icones plantarum in itinere ad insulas Maris Australis. . . .” He also intended to publish a major study of European exploration in the Pacific. In 1787 Forster published at Göttingen Fasciculas plantarum Magellanicarum and Plantae Atlanticae. J. D. Hooker, in his later work on the botany of the Erebus and Terror voyages, drew critically on the work of the Forsters, who in turn were indebted to Daniel Solander, Cook’s Endeavour botanist. Apart from his botanical work Forster’s main contributions to the natural history of Cook’s second voyage were his drawings and, later, his philosophical and geographic essays. In 1786 he engaged in a polemic with Kant over his theory of the origins of man.

In 1787, prevented by war from taking up an appointment as naturalist to a Russian expedition, Forster returned to Göttingen; and in October 1788 he was appointed librarian at the University of Mainz. Between March and July 1790, accompanied by Humboldt, he traveled to England via the Rhineland and the Low Countries. His most important prose work, Ansichten vom Niederrhein (Berlin, 1791–1794), was a penetrating account of his journey with Humboldt. During the Mainz period his interest and writing turned more to social history and politics. He became absorbed in the French administration which governed Mainz from October 1792. In March 1793, Forster went as a Rhineland deputy to the National Convention in Paris, where he died of illness aggravated by scurvy contracted during the Resolution voyage.

Forster wrote of himself in 1789: “Natural science in its broadest sense and particularly anthropology have been my occupation hitherto. What I have written since my voyage is closely related to that.” Cook’s voyages opened up new areas of investigation to men of science in Europe. Forster, the universal scholar, was a remarkable apologist for the new era of scientific discovery. Fully alive to all the great movements of his day and in contact with the most eminent men in Germany and abroad, Forster, who had been well schooled by his father, did much to convey to the parochial world of German science and letters the significance of the great contemporary empirical advances in the geographic and biological sciences—in some of which disciplines German-speaking scientists were destined to have a profound influence in the ensuing century.


I. Original Works. The most complete collection of Forster’s writings, edited by Gerhard Steiner, is Georg Forsters Werke, Sämtliche Schriften, Tagebücher, Briefe, which is being published by the Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin (1958-). To date only vols. I–III, VII, and IX have appeared. Two earlier, smaller collections are L. F. Huber, ed., Kleine Schriften. Ein Beytrag zur Völker-und Länderkunde, Naturgeschichte und Philosophie des Lebens, 6 vols. (Leipzig, 1789–1797); and G. G. Gervinus, ed., Georg Forster’s Sämmtliche Schriften, 9 vols. (Leipzig, 1843).

Collected eds. of some of Forster’s prolific correspondence are Therese Huber, ed., Johann Georg Forster’s Briefwechsel nebst einigen Nachrichten von seinem Leben (Leipzig, 1829); and H. Hettner, ed., Georg Forster’s Briefwechsel mit S. Th. Sömmering (Brunswick, 1877). Summaries of some of his English letters are in Warren R. Dawson, ed., The Banks Letters. A Calendar of the Manuscript Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks . . . (London, 1958). MSS copies of his, scientific papers, correspondence, etc. are extant in many collections throughout Europe, North America, and Australasia.

A good bibliography is in Johann Georg Meusel, Lexikon der vom Jahr 1750 bis 1800 verstorbenen Teutschen Schrifisteller, III (Leipzig, 1804), 419–430; some individual works are listed in Poggendorff, I, 776.

II. Secondary Literature. Because of the universal nature of his work, Forster is cited by historians in many disciplines. He is also the subject of fictional writing. The fullest bibliography and assessment of his work are in Ludwig Uhlig, Georg Forster. Einheit und Mannigfaltigkeit in seiner geistigen Welt (Tübingen, 1965). Very little scholarly work on Forster is available in English: some appreciation of his science and writings can be found in E. D. Merrill, The Botany of Cook’s Voyages (Waltham, Mass., 1954); and L. Bodi, in Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, 8 (1959), 345–363.

No satisfactory full-length biography of Forster exists. The standard note is still A. Dove, in Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, VII (1878), 173–181. Also useful is K. Karsten, Der Weltumsegler (Bern, 1957).

Michael E. Hoare

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Forster, (Johann) Georg Adam

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