Keyserling, Alexandr Andreevich

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Keyserling, Alexandr Andreevich

(b. Kabillen farm, Couland, Latvia, 15 August 1815; d. Raikü estate, Estonia, 8 May 1891)

geology, paleontology, botany.

Keyserling was the fifth son of seen children of Count Heinrich Dietrich Wilhelm Keyserling and the former Anne Nolde. He received good education and in 1834 began to study law at Berlin University. Under the influence of Buch and Humboldt, whom he met there, he became interested in natural sciences and chose geology a his specialty. In 1840 Keyserling returned to Russia nd a year later became an official handling special missions in the Mining Department. In 1842 Berlin University awarded him a doctorate.

In 1844 Keyserling married Zinaida Kankrina, the daughter of Russia’s minister of finance. Being financially secure, he did not have to consider permanent employment; and in 1850 he left government service. He settled down on his estate in Estonia and continued his scientific research. In 1858 the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences elected him corresponding member and in 1887 granted him the title of honorary academician.

Keyserling began his scientific research while still a student. With the zoologist J. H. Blasius, later a profesor at Brunswick, he made a number of excursions in the Carpathians and the Alps, collecting material for his first scientific paper (1837). Later they studied vertebrates of Europe.

Keyserling returned to Russia with Blasius, and they participated in A. K. Meyendorff’s expedition that studied the natural resources and industry fo European Russia. In 1841 keyserling joined the special expedition conducted by Murchison to study the geological structure of European Russia and the Urals; and he studied a vast area—the kirghiz steppes—along the3 left bank of the Volga southwest of Orenburg.

To process the material collected there Keyserling visited Paris and London in 1842. A year later he took part in another expedition, to study the geologicval structure of the Pechora basin, the northern Urals, and Timan. Previously this area was virtually unknown geologically, and Keyserling’s research provided extensive new material on the geological structure and the paleontology of Paleozoic and Jurassic deposits developed there. The paper he published on the basis of the data collected was awarded the Demidoff Prize by the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. The paper was included in the second volume of a large summary of the geology of Russia published by Murchison, P. D. de Verneuil, and Keyserling in 1845, in which the greater part of th paleontological section is Keyserling’s. In general he paid great attention to study of extinct organisms, and many of his papers are devoted to descriptions of fossi9ls collected by other researchers during their Siberian investigations. After he retired from his official posts in 1850 Keyserling practically gave up traveling until 1860, when he made several crossings if the Pyrenees with Verneuil.

Along with the usual description Keyserling’s geologicval papers contain elements of facies analysis, which was quite new at that time. Thus in 1842, on the basis of the lithology and color of the rocks, he reconstructed the changing paleogeographical conditions in the Carboniferous sea of the Moscow basin.

Keyserling had an active interest in botany and worked out the systematics of the fern genus Adiantum. This research provided him with abundant material for theoretical deductions in biology. He came to the conclusion that the entire complex of plants and animals inhabiting the earth originated through evolution of primitive cellular elements, or protoplasts. In 1853 he suggested that under the chemical effects of various elements the embryos of living beings undergo a transformation that leads to the creation of new species. In this process only the most adaptable survive, the others becoming extinct. At that time such ideas were very daring and new.

Charles Darwin praised Keyserling’s views, referring to him in The Origin of Species (1859) as one of his predecessors. Darwin’s theory of evolution had a marked effect upon Keyserling; under its influence he changed his views substantially but never became a consistent evolutionist, believing that the changes of a species take place abruptly rather than by gradual modification.

Keyserling contributed substantially to the progress of culture and education in the Baltic provinces. From 1862 to 1869 he was a trustee of the Dorpat (now Tartu) educational region. With J. F. Schmidt he founded a museum of natural history in Reval (Tallinn), which has the world’s richest collections of Ordovician and Silurian fauna of the Baltic provinces.

Keyserling was an honorary or corresponding member of numerous Russian and foreign scientific societies, including the mineralogical society of St. Petersburg and the geological societies of London and Paris; and for many years he was president of the Agricultural Society of Estonia. Keyserling’s titles at the court were gentleman in attendance and court tutor, as well as land counselor of Estland.


I. Original Works. Keyserling’s major writings are “Bemerkungen während des überganges von Latsch nach Bormio durch das Marterthal”, in Neues Jahrbuch der Mineralogie … (1837), PP. 389-502, written with J. H. Blasius; The Geology of Russia and the Ural Mountains, 2 vols. (London-Paris, 1845), written with R. I. Murchison and P. E. de Verneuil; Wissenschaftliche Beobachtungen auf einer Reise in das Petschoraland in Jahre 1843 (St. Petersburg, 1846); and “Genus Adiantum recensuit L.,” in Mémoires de l’ Académie des sciences de St. Pétersbourg, 7th ser., 22 no. 2 (1875), 1-44.

II. Secondary Literature. See J. F. Schmidt and S. N. Nikitin, “Aleksandr Keyserling” in lzuestiya Geologicheskogo Komiteta,10 no. 15 (1891), 1-11, which includes a bibliography of 21 titles; and Helene von Taube von der lssen (Keyserling’s daughter), ed., Graf Alexander Keyserling. Ein Lebensbild aus seinen Briefen und Tage-üchern., … 2 vols. (Berlin, 1902), with portrait.

V. V. Tikhomirov