Lepekhin, Ivan Ivanovich

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Lepekhin, Ivan Ivanovich

(b. St. Petersburg, Russia [now Leningrad, U.S.S.R.], 21 September 1740; d. St. Petersburg, 18 April 1802)

geography, natural history.

Lepekhin’s father, Ivan Sidorovich Lepekhin, was a guardsman in the Semenovsky regiment. The soldiers of this regiment were entitled to send their children to the Gymnasium and University attached to the St. Petersburg Academy; and in the spring of 1751, the ten-year-old Lepekhin was accepted at the Gymnasium. He studied there, at state expense, until January 1760, when he was accepted as a student at the University. He remained at the University for two and a half years, studying the humanities and chemistry, but he wanted most of all to study the broader discipline of natural history which was not taught there. Lepekhin therefore asked for and received permission to study at a foreign university. His request was granted and in November 1762 he enrolled at the University of Strasbourg.

At Strasbourg, Lepekhin devoted himself to practical anatomy, physiological experiments on living animals, and medicine. In his free time, he collected and studied plants and insects in the vicinity of Strasbourg and compiled lists of local birds and fish. In the summer of 1766 he defended his dissertation on the formation of vinegar (“Specimen de acetificatione”) and received the doctorate in medicine.

Lepekhin returned to St. Petersburg in the fall of 1767 and the following June was elected an adjunct of the Academy. In April of 1771 he was made academician in the department of natural history.

Lepekhin is known mainly as the leader of one of the five expeditions organized by the Academy in 1768 to study the natural resources of Russia and to collect ethnographic and economic data. In the first three years the expedition, which consisted of Lepekhin and six companions, traveled from Moscow to Simbirsk (Ulyanovsk), Samara (Kuibyshev), Saratov, Tsaritsyn (Volgograd), Gurev, Orenburg, Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), and Tyumen. They were to proceed as far as Tobolsk and then to return to St. Petersburg. At Tyumen, where he spent the third winter, Lepekhin was granted permission to travel instead into northern European Russia—to the area around the White Sea. In 1772 the expedition left Tyumen and traveled to Archangel via Verkhoture and Veliki Ustyug. From Archangel they explored the White Sea coast, the Solovetskiye Islands, and the Kanin Peninsula. They then returned to St. Petersburg by way of Kholmogory, Kargopol, and Ladoga. In 1773 Lepekhin led a nine-month expedition to investigate Byelorussia.

From 1774 to 1802 Lepekhin was head of the Botanical Garden of the Academy of Sciences, and from 1777 to 1794 of the Gymnasium. From 1783 until his death he was the permanent secretary of the Russian Academy, created in the same year for work in the area of Russian literature (it was active until 1841, when it merged with the Petersburg Academy of Sciences as the Section of Russian Language and Literature). He participated in the compilation and publication of a six-volume Dictionary of the Russian Academy and directed its organization.

Along with his substantial administrative work in the two academies, Lepekhin systematically published articles devoted to the description of the new species of animals and plants he had discovered during his travels. He wrote forty-four articles (excluding the articles on physiology) in Latin, Russian, and French. But Lepekhin’s chief scientific work was his four-volume Diaries of a Journey Through Various Provinces of the Russian State (1771–1805). The first three volumes were translated into German in 1774–1783, and published in 1784 in French in Lausanne. These publications enhanced Lepekhin’s scientific reputation abroad. In 1776 he was elected a member of the Berlin Academy and several newly discovered plants and insects were named by German scientists in his honor.

The Diaries are a rich collection of natural science and ethnographic information relating to the Volga area, the Urals and adjacent northwestern Kazakhstan and western Siberia, and northern European Russia. Lepekhin gave special attention to the description of more than 300 species of animals and their habits and distribution. With great care he described more than 100 birds and 117 insects species. What is important about the Diaries is that they not only described different species but also gave whole zoological maps of broad areas, which was an innovation.

In the Diaries much attention was given also to plants. Many unknown plants of the Urals and the northern tundra were described, and much information was collected about plants useful to man and ways of cultivating them. Along with factual data the Diaries contain a number of interesting general observations. Concerning the question of the variability of the earth’s surface, Lepekhin thoroughly rejected the widespread belief that changes in the earth’s surface were the result of catastrophic floods. Like Lomonosov, with whose O sloyakh zemnykh (“On the Layers of the Earth”) he became acquainted while still a student in Strasbourg, Lepekhin considered that the changes were the result of the slow influence of water and underground fire and were still taking place. To explain the presence of marine fossils in layers of rock, he said, “There was once ocean floor upon which now are built famous cities, and populous towns...” (Diaries, III, p.36).

Speaking of the origin of the Ural Mountains, Lepekhin came to the correct idea of the hydrologic cycle in nature, aligning himself with those natural scientists “Who by ocean vapors, which are the source of rivers, determine the circulation of the atmosphere” (Diaries,II, p.144). In a number of places in the Diaries Lepekhin closely approached an understanding of the possibility of change caused by external conditions. He described many deposits of useful fossils, and in particular he noted the phenomena of oil in several places between the Urals and the Volga. To Lepekhin’s many contributions to science must be added his ten-volume Russian edition of Buffon’s Historie Naturelle (St.Petersburg, 1789–1808). Lepekhin himself translated volumes V-X, and Volume I in collaboration with Rumovsky.


I. Original Works. See I.I Lepekhin, Dnevnye zapiski puteshestvia po raznym provintsiam Rossyskogo gosudarstva ( “Diaries of a Journey Through Various Provinces of the Russian State” ; pts. 1–4, St. Petersburg, 1771–1805).

II. Secondary Literature. For information on Lepekhin’s life, see N. G. Frandkin, Akademik I.I. Lepekhin i ego puteshestvia po Rossii ν 1768–1773gg ( “Academician I.I. Lepekhin and His Journeys Through Russia in 1768–1773” ; Moscow, 1953); T. A. Lukina, Ivan Ivanovich Lepekhin (Moscow–Leningard, 1965); N. Ya. Ozeretskovsky, “Zhizn I. I. Lepekhina” ( “Life of I. I. Lepekhin” ) in Zhurmal departamenta narodnogo prosveshchenia, no. 11 (1822), 281–288; V.A. Polenov, “Kratkoe zhiznepiasnie I. I. Lepekhina” ( “A Short Description of the Life of I. I. Lepekhin” ) in Trudy Rossyskoy Akademi, “I.I Lepekhin,” in Istoria Rossykoy Akademiü, no.2 91875), 157–299.

I. A. Fedoseev