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Kalm, Pehr

Kalm, Pehr

(b. Ångermanland, Sweden, 6 March 1716; d. Turku, Finland, 16 November 1779)

natural history.

The defeat of Charles XII of Sweden and Finland left the latter country open to a reign of Russian terror during which many people fled. Among them were Gabriel Kalm, curate of Korsnäs Chapel in Närpes parish, country of Ostrobothnia, and his wife Catharina Ross, who escaped to Sweden. Their son Pehr was born somewhere in the county of Ångermanland; the father died there and the widow returned to Finland after the Treaty of Nystad (1721). Pehr was educated at the Gymnasium in Vaasa and matriculated (1735) at the University of Åbo (founded by Queen Christina in 1640 as Åbo Academy and shifted to Helsinki when Åbo [Finnish Turku] was destroyed by fire in 1827).

The poor but gifted and well–connected boy found influential supporters among the university professors, including the professor of physics Johan Browallius and Carl Fredrik Mennander, both later to become bishops. The vice-president of the Åbo Law Court, Baron Bielke, then took him to his estate, Löfstad, near Uppsala, where for seven years Kalm served as superintendent of his experimental plantation. Bielke introduced him to his rich library of natural history and to his famous friend Linnaeus, under whose guidance Kalm completed his studies at the University of Uppsala. Bielke sent him on botanical expeditions to the south of Sweden and to Finland, and took him as a companion on a journey to St. Petersburg and Moscow. Kalm became a learned and well-trained naturalist in the pattern of his great teacher and in 1747 was named professor oeconomiae (“economy” here meant the utilitarian aspects of natural science) at the University of Åbo.

The great event in his life was his journey, sponsored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, to North America and Canada to discover useful plants capable of withstanding the Scandinavian climate. Kalm landed in Philadelphia in September 1748. Benjamin Franklin and two correspondents of Linnaeus, John Bartram and Cadwallader Colden, the latter lieutenant-governor of the New York colony, became helpful friends. Both of them were keen botanists admired by Kalm and Linnaeus. When this part of the country had been explored, Kalm departed in May 1749 for New York, Albany, Lake Champlain, and Canada, where French officials received him in princely fashion and paid his traveling expenses within the colony. He returned to Philadelphia in October. A second journey to Canada was undertaken in 1750 (the diary from which has been lost). In February 1751 Kalm left Philadelphia for Stockholm going thence to Åbo, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Kalm’s biographer, the eminent Swedish botanist Carl Skottsberg, calls him a descriptive naturalist of the first rank, cautious, penetrating, and precise as an observer. In the Species plantarum of Linnaeus, Kalm was cited for ninety species, sixty of them new. The mountain laurel genus Kalmia was named for him. Extreme utilitarian that he was, at Åbo Kalm spent his time trying to grow economically useful plants.

Kalm’s description of his American journey does not constitute a complete picture, but what remains is important enough to make it an informative source on eighteenth-century American colonial life, customs, agriculture, politics (Kalm predicted American independence), and Indian tribes. Kalm’s diary (5 October 1747–31 December 1749), from which he selected material for the three volumes published in his lifetime, was discovered by Georg Schauman, chief librarian in the university library at Helsinki, and the Society for Swedish Literature in Finland has included part of it in its republication of Kalm’s book on North America. To posterity, the diary itself is the most interesting part of his writings because of its wealth of cultural and ethnographic detail, and also because of the reliability of the observer. Kalm’s contemporaries had little interest in these aspects of the journey.


Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America, Adolph Benson, ed., 2 vols. (New York, 1937). The Swedish original, Fredrik Elfving and Georg Schauman, eds., 4 vols., appears in the series Skrifter Utgivna av Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland: I as vol. LXVI (Helsinki, 1904); II as vol. XCIII (Henlsinki, 1910); III as vol. CXX (Helsinki, 1915); and IV (from the diary), as vol. CCX (Helsinki, 1929). The first complete publication of the diary has now begun. Vol. I (M. Kerkkonen, ed.) has appeared as vol. CDX̀IX (Helsinki, 1966) in the Skrifter series. This covers his stay in England en route to America.

See also Carl Skottsberg, “Pehr Kalm” in Kungliga Svenska vetenskapsakademiens levnadsteckningar, no. 139 (Stockholm and Uppsala, 1951), pp. 221–503.

Ragnar Granit

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