Gmelin, Johann Georg

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Gmelin, Johann Georg

(b. Tübingen, Germany, 10 August 1709; d. Tübingen, 20 May 1755)

botany, natural history, geography.

Johann Georg Gmelin’s father (also called Johann Georg), apothecary, chemist, and academician in Tübingen, was the founder of the older branch of the Gmelin family, which included several distinguished scholars and scientists. The younger Johann Georg was extremely gifted and was early encouraged in his scientific endeavors by his father, who had a natural history collection and a laboratory. In their travels, the elder Gmelin also introduced his son to the study of the Württemberg mineral springs. From the time Gmelin was fourteen he was able to follow university lectures. He held his first disputation when he was seventeen and a year later, in 1727, graduated in medicine. Among his teachers were the philosopher and mathematician Georg Bernhard Bilfinger and the botanist and anatomist Johann Georg Duvernoy; both went to St. Petersburg in 1725 and thus determined the destination of young Gmelin’s first scientific voyage.

In St. Petersburg, with the help and guidance of his teachers, Gmelin was allowed to attend meetings of the Academy of Sciences. In 1728 he was offered a fellowship and in 1730 permitted to lecture at the Academy. He became professor of chemistry and natural history in 1731, and then academician. In 1733, when he had intended to return home, Gmelin took part instead in an imperial scientific expedition to eastern Siberia with the historian Gerhard Friedrich Müller and the astronomer Louis Delisle de la Croyère. Müller was to survey archives and records, Delisle de la Croyère to determine geographical coordinates, and Gmelin to study the natural history of the territories to be visited. They were supported by a party of six students, two painters, two hunters, two miners, four land surveyors, and twelve soldiers. They were expected to join, by land, the sea expedition to Kamchatka led by Captains Bering and Chirikov.

Gmelin’s expedition left St. Petersburg on 8 July 1733 for Tobolsk, which they expected to reach early in 1734 and where they hoped to make a lengthy stay. They proceeded eastward with many side expeditions, exploring territories along the Irtysh, Ob, and Tom rivers, through Krasnoyarsk to Yeniseysk (January 1735) and then through Irkutsk to the Chinese (now Mongolian) frontier at Kyakhta. In 1735 they thoroughly explored the Transbaikal region proceeding through Selenginsk and Nerchinsk, then along the Lena River to the north. In September 1735 they reached Yakutsk (130° east) from which they undertook numerous expeditions.

In November 1736 a fire destroyed most of Gmelin’s equipment, instruments, books, collections, and drawings. Facing additional difficulties, Gmelin and Müller realized they could not succeed in joining the Bering-Chirikov expedition and so received permission to continue explorations on their return journey. They left Yakutsk in May 1737 to explore the regions along the Angara and Tunguska rivers. At Yeniseysk they met Georg Wilhelm Steller, a bold and tough explorer who was sent from St. Petersburg to join them. Gmelin, however, sent him to the east with a small party. (Steller thus succeeded in joining Bering and distinguished himself by reaching the Alaskan coast; he was one of the few survivors of the disastrous winter of 1741–1742 on Bering Island, and went on to explore Kamchatka.)

Gmelin meanwhile traveled to the north along the Yenisey River to 66°N. latitude, then turned to the south and reached Krasnoyarsk in February 1740. Muller separated from Gmelin’s party, which next explored the region between the Yenisey and Ob, the Baraba Steppe, and then advanced to the southwest to the Ishim and Wagai steppes and to the Caspian Sea. Eventually they explored the mines in the Ural Mountains. The party reached St. Petersburg on 28 February 1743 after nine and one-half years of travel.

Upon his return Gmelin resumed his academic functions at the Academy and worked on the scientific accounts of his journey. His four-volume Flora sibirica (1747–1769) contains descriptions of 1,178 species and illustrations of 294 of these. Although primarily a botanist, Gmelin had a good knowledge of other natural sciences of his time and with his travels contributed to the knowledge of the zoology, geography, geology, ethnography, and natural resources (e.g., location of coal, iron, salt, and mica) of the explored regions. He used the barometer to determine altitude and was the first to find (from the average of J. J. Lerche’s eleven-month barometric pressure observation in Astrakhan) that the level of the Caspian Sea is below that of the Mediterranean and Black seas. Greatly astonishing the world’s scientists, in January 1735 he recorded at Yeniseysk the lowest temperatures observed anywhere up to that time. In addition, he made another important finding in parts of eastern Siberia where a subsurface layer of soil, several feet thick, remained frozen even in summer. Gmelin attempted to measure its thickness.

In his preface to the Flora sibirica, Gmelin gave a remarkable overall picture of the nature of central Siberia, pointing out that western Siberia looks very much like eastern Europe, but that after crossing the Yenisey River he had the impression of being in another continent. Once on the other side, he saw rivers with clear water, new forms of plants and animals, a strange landscape with strange people—in short, a new world. Thus the Yenisey River seemed to him the natural frontier between Europe and Asia, an idea which had not occurred to any geographer before him. As a whole, the results of Gmelin’s expedition represent the most important early contribution to the natural history and geography of the vast Siberian mainland.

In 1747 Gmelin was granted a year’s leave from the Academy of Sciences and returned to Tübingen, where he married and remained until his death. In 1749 he became professor of medicine, botany, and chemistry at the University of Tübingen. In his inaugural lecture Gmelin reported that he had observed, in his St. Petersburg garden, the appearance of five or six new forms of the plant genus Delphinium from two original species brought from Siberia. He, with other leading scientists of the time, tried to reconcile, in the ensuing debate, such transmutations with belief in the original creation of all species and with the accepted Linnaean position on the fixity of species. He corresponded with Linnaeus, Haller, and Steller on this and other matters of scientific interest.


I. Original Works. Gmelin’s principal scientific work, considered to be a masterpiece of scientific survey, is the Flora sibirica sive historia plantarum Sibiriae, 4 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1747–1769); the preface contains a short account of Gmelin’s travels and results of his explorations. Vols. III and IV of this work were edited after his death by his nephew, Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin, who also worked as an explorer in Asia for the Russian Academy of Sciences. The most remarkable among Gmelin’s shorter academic treatises is the Sermo academicus De novarum vegetabilium post creationem divinam exortu (Tübingen, 1749).

Gmelin’s second major work, Reise durch Sibirien von dem Jahr 1733 bis 1743, 4 vols. (Göttingen, 1751–1752), is an adaptation of his travel notebooks for general publication. It contains a wealth of information, but makes rather dull reading. It was published in an abridged French version, Voyage en Sibérie contenant la description des moeurs et usages des peuples de ce pays..., 2 vols. (Paris, 1767), and in Dutch. Its publication in Russia was banned because of the work’s severe criticism of the Russian bureaucracy for its inefficiency, incompetence, and even malevolence.

For Gmelin’s correspondence with Linnaeus, Haller, Steller, and others see T. Plieninger, ed., Johannis Georgii Gmelini reliquiae quae supersunt (Stuttgart. 1861). Several vols. of MS notes from Gmelin’s travels have been preserved in the archives of the Academy of Sciences in Leningrad. Their description is in D.J. Litvinov, Bibliografia flory Sibiri (St. Petersburg, 1909), pp. 53–64.

II. Secondary Literature. Genealogical tables of the Gmelin family and other valuable information are in Moritz Gmelin, Stammbaum der Familie Gmelin (Karlsruhe. 1877); 2nd ed. by Edward Gmelin in 2 vols.: Jungere Tübinger Linie (Munich, 1922), and Ältere Stuttgarter Linie und ältere Tübinger Linie (Munich, 1929). M. Gmelin also published a short biography in Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, IX (1879), 269–270.

Another short biography is Eyries, Biographie universelle, J. F. Michaud, ed. (1856), pp. 644–646. Much information is in F. A. Golder, Bering’s Voyages, an Account of the Efforts of the Russians to Determine the Relations of Asia and America, 2 vols. (New York, 1922–1925); R. Grandmann, Johann Georg Gmelin, 1709–1755. Der Erforscher Sibiriens. Ein Gedenkbuch, Otto Gmelin, ed. (Munich, 1911), which contains a German trans, of the preface to the Flora sibirica, a selection from the Reise durch Sibirien, and selections from Gmelin’s letters; and L. Stejneger, Georg Wilhelm Steller, the Pioneer of Alaskan Natural History (Cambridge, Mass., 1936). See also P. Pekarsky, Istoria imperatorskoy Akademii Nauk, I (St. Petersburg, 1870), 431–457.

Gmelin’s contributions to Siberian geology are reported by V. A. Obruchev in his Istoria geologicheskovo issledovania Sibiri, I (Leningrad, 1931).

Vladislav Kruta