Pallas, Pyotr Simon

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(b. Berlin, Germany, 3 October 1741; d. Berlin, 20 September 1811)

natural science, geography.

Pallas was the son of a professor at the Berlin Medical-Surgical Academy. He received his early education at home and from 1754 to 1759 studied at the Medical-Surgical Academy and the universities of Halle, Göttingen, and Leiden. In his dissertation for the doctorate in medicine, which he defended at Leiden, Pallas refuted the Linnaean classification of worms. From 1761 to 1766 he studied collections of marine animals in England and Holland. In Elenchus zoophytorum (1766) he gave a detailed classification of corals and sponges, which had just been transferred by zoologists from the plant kingdom to the animal. In 1763 Pallas was elected a member of the Royal Society of London and the Academia Caesarea Leopoldina.

In 1767 Pallas was invited to work at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. He was elected ordinary academician and had the rank of acting state councillor. For more than forty years Pallas was associated exclusively with the development of Russian science. During his first years there he studied nature and the peoples of the Russian empire, participating in the “Academic expeditions” of 1768–1774. His research as leader of the first Orenburg detachment of the expeditions covered both European Russia and Asia. Pallas and his companions journeyed from St. Petersburg to Moscow; crossed the Volga at Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk); and explored the Zhiguli Mountains and the southern Urals, the steppes of western Siberia and the Altay, Lake Baikal, and the mountains of Transbaikalia. The easternmost regions visited were the basins of the Shilka and Argun rivers. On his way back to St. Petersburg, Pallas Studied the Caspian depression and the lower reaches of the Volga. His results were published in Reise durch verschiedenen Provinzen des russischen Reichs… (1771–1776), which later appeared in Russian (1773–1778) and in French, English, and Italian, Pallas’ writings and the other materials of the “Academic expeditions” enriched natural history by providing massive amounts of empirical data which made it possible to generalize on the geographical distribution of plants and animals and to gain knowledge about the orography, climate, population, and economy of varied and little-studied regions of Russia.

In St. Petersburg Pallas published a series of works, including a monograph on rodents (1778) and on the genus Astragalus (1780); assembled a collection of botanical, zoological, and mineralogical specimens; and was the Admiralty historiographer and teacher of the future Emperor Alexander I and his brother Constantine. At the Academy of Sciences he proposed bold project for new expeditions of northern and eastern Siberia. Pallas’s discussions of the formation of mountains (1777) and the variability of animals (1780) are of great importance. Pallas offered a paleogeographic interpretation of fossil animal remains found in the frozen strata of Siberia, although he was influenced by ideas that explained these phenomena in terms of the sudden catastrophic incursion of oceanic water from the south. In an illustrated collection, Flora Russia, he described 283 species of ancient trees and began work on the description of the fauna of Russia.

In 1793–1974 Pallas studied the southern provinces of Russia—the steppes near the Caspian Sea, the northern Caucasus, and the Crimea. The natural beauty of the Crimea and its healthy climate made him decide to live there permanently. Catherine II granted him two estates on the shore and a house in Simferpol, as well as a subsidy to establish a school of horticulture and enology. In 1795 Pallas moved to the Crimea, where he studied nature and developed gardens and vineyards in the Sudak and Koz valleys. He published Fizicheskoe i topograficheskoe opisanie Tavricheskoy gubernii (“Physical and Topographical Description of Taurida Province” 1795) and wrote articles on the agricultural technology of the warm areas of the Crimea. His main efforts were devoted to preparing materials of the 1793–1794 trip for publication and to compiling a complete description of the fauna of Russia. In 1799–1801 he published an account of the trip that included an important description of the Crimea.

The writing of a zoological geography of the Russian empire, which was the main goal of Pallas’ life, took much work and money; and its preparation for publication went slowly. Because of his declining health, and his wish to hasten the appearance of his work in print, Pallas moved in 1810 to Berlin, where he died a year later. The St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, without waiting to prepare the drawings for publication, began in 1811 to publish Pallas’ Zoographia Rosso-Asiatica …, the last volume of which appeared in 1831.

A versatile scientist, Pallas was in many ways reminiscent of the scientific encyclopedists of antiquity. Among his contemporaries he was a peer of Linnaeus and Buffon; in zoology, he was a predecessor of Cuvier. As a geographer he may be considered a predecessor of Humboldt. Pallas sought to advance from merely describing nature to finding the causal interrelationships and hidden regularities of natural phenomena. Using the comparative method, he laid the bases of a new natural history that excluded the metaphysical approach. Pallas’ achievements in zoology and botany were especially important. He was one of the first to use anatomical characteristics in classifying animals. His research in comparative anatomy provided the foundations for animal taxonomy. He described hundreds of species of animals and plants; expressed interesting ideas on their relationships to the environment; and noted the boundaries and areas of their distribution, which led to the development of the science of biogeography.

Pallas’ views on the evolution of animals and plants reflected the contradictions in the science of his age and underwent changes during his lifetime. In the 1760’s and 1770’s he assumed the unity of origin and historical development of the organic world. In 1766 he proposed the first known scheme to express the sequential development of animal organisms in terms of a family tree. Later he spoke as a metaphysician and catastrophist, recognizing the constancy and nonvariability of species. In 1780 Pallas showed that all known species arose at one general time. He denied Buffon’s idea that food, climate, and way of life influence the variation of species and Linnaeus’ idea that species vary through the process of hybridization.

Pallas’ contribution to geology and geography was great. From his descriptions of the natural features of Russia later generations of scientists drew much that was new and useful. He formulated the first general hypothesis of the formation of mountains. In his opinion, granite constituted the skeleton of the earth and its nucleus. Emerging after some time in the form of marine islands, the granite appeared framed with slate, the product of the disintegration of the granite. Limestones containing organic remains and constituting a Secondary formation are even younger. The friable rocks of adjacent foothills were separated out into a Tertiary formation. The raising of the mountains and the receding of the seas occurred, in Pallas’ opinion, as a result of volcanic processes. These processes caused the inclined position of layers, especially of the steep position of the most ancient rocks. Pallas’ ideas on the structure and origin of mountains played an important role in the further development of theoretical geology, as Cuvier pointed out.

The progressive significance of Pallas’ views consisted in the recognition of a prolonged geological history of the earth and of the important role of both volcanic (inner) and external forces and their mutual influence in the development of the earth. In many ways, however, he shared the opinions of seventeenthand eighteenth-century diluvialists. His work was influential in the development of evolutionary ideas of nature, as was acknowledged by Charles Darwin in England and K. F. Rulye in Russia.

Pallas left a deep impression in paleogeography, medicine, ethnography, the history of geography, and philology. His impressive capacity for work resulted in 170 published writings, including dozens of major reports on research. He was an active member of many Russian and foreign scientific societies, institutes, and academies. Plants and animals—including the plant genus Pallasia (the name given by Linnaeus) and the Crimean pine Pinus Pallasiana—were named in honor of Pallas. Stony meteorites are called pallasite; and a volcano (Pallasa) in the Kuril Islands and a reef in New Guinea bear his name.


I. Original Works. Pallas’ writings include Reise durch verschiedenen Provinzen des russischen Reichs in den Jahren 1768–1776, 2 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1771–1776); “Observations sur la formation des montagnes et sur les changements arrivés au globe,” in Acta academiae scientiarum imperialis Petropolitanae, pt. 1 (1777), 21–64; Novae species quadrupedum et glirium ordine (Erlangen, 1778); Species astragalorum (Leipzig, 1780); “Mémoire sur la variation des animaux,” in Acta academiae scientiarum imperialis Petropolitanae,4, pt. 2 (1780), 69–102; “O Rossyskikh otkrytiakh na moryakh mezhdu Aziey i Amerikoy” (“ On Russian Discoveries in the Seas Between Asia and America”), in Mesyatseslov istorichesky i geografichesky (1781), 1–150, also in German (1782) and Danish (1784); Flora Rossia… (St. Petersburg, 1784–1788), also in Russian (St. Petersburg, 1786); Bermerkungen auf einer Reise in die südlichen Statthalterschaften des russischen Reichs in den Jahren 1793 und 1794, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1799–1801); and Zoographia Rosso-Asiatica,3 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1811–1831).

II. Secondary Literature. See V. V. Belousov, “Pallasputeshestvennik i geology” (“ Pallas—Traveler and Geologist” ), in Priroda (1941), no. 3, 111–116; G. P. Dementev, “Pyotr Simon Pallas (1741–1811),” in Lyudi russkoy nauki. Biologia… (“ People of Russian Science. Biology…”; Moscow, 1963), 34–44, with bibliography; Y. K. Efremov, “Pyotr Simon Pallas,” in N. N. Baransky et al., eds. Otechestvennye fiziki-geografy i puteshestvenniki (“Native Physical Geographers and Travelers”; Moscow, 1950), 132–144, with bibliography; V. Marakuev, Pyotr Simon Pallas, ego zhizn, uchenye trudy i puteshestvia (“…His Life, Scientific Works and Travels”; Moscow, 1877); “Peter Simon Pallas (1741–1811),” in Lomonosov. Schlözer. Pallas. Deutsch-Russische Wissenschaftsbeziehungen im 18. Jahrhunderi (Berlin, 1962), 245–317; and B. E. Raykov, “Russkie biologi-evolyuisionisty do Darvina” (“ Russian Evolutionist Biologists Before Darwin” ), in Materialy k istorii evolyutsionnoy idei v Rossii (“ Material for a History of the Idea of Evolution in Russia” ), I (Moscow-Leningrad, 1925), 42–105, with bibliography.

Vasiliy A. Esakov