Scheuchzer, Johann Jakob

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(b. Zurich, Switzerlan, 2 August 1672: d. Zurich, 23 June 1733)

medicine, natural history, mathematics, geology, geophysics.

A diligent pupil at the age of three, Scheuchzer later became a brilliant student at the Carolinum in Zurich. Devoted to the natural sciences, he decided to study medicine and, having won a scholarship in 1691, was able to enroll in both science and medicine courses at the Altdorf Academy, near Nuremberg. He remained there for two years, then went to Utrecht, where he was awarded the doctorate in 1694. The fossil collection that he began assembling in 1690 soon became famous and brought Scheuchzer to the attention of the scholarly world. In 1694 he returned to Zurich and began systematic exploration of the Alps. His first writings for the Collegium der Wohlgesinnten (1695) were a scientific study of the Helvetic Alps. Scheuchzer then went to Nuremberg, where he studied for a diploma in mathematics, intending to teach this subject. But he was recalled to Zurich to become assistant municipal physician and medical supervisor of the orphanage. A few years later he became head of the Bibliothéque des Bourgeois, a post that he occupied while serving as director of the Museum of Natural History (then called the Kunsthammer).

By the age of thirty Scheuchzer had become prominent in Zurich and was carrying on a voluminous correspondence with many European scholars that has become of great interest to historians of science. A grant from the Zurich government in 1702 enabled him to resume his numerous communications in geology, geophysics, natural sciences, and medicine. The results of his annual excursions to the Alps are presented in Helvetiae stoicheiographia (1716–1718), his greatest work in natural history and geophysics. In 1716 he became professor of mathematics at the Carolinum, and a few months before his death he was named premier médecin of Zurich, professor of physics at the Academy, and Chorherr.

Scheuchzer left the municipal library of Zurich more than 260 folio volumes, which he wrote in less than forty years. The moving force in the establishment of paleontology in Switzerland, he is also considered the founder of paleobotany and his Herbarium diluvianum remained a standard through the nineteenth century. His work on a great variety of fossils and notably on Homo diluvütestis of Oensingen (1726) makes him generally considered the founder of European paleontology. Scheuchzer became famous for his medical studies on the effects of altitude, published a remarkable topographic map of Switzerland, and took an active part in the military life of his canton as an army doctor.

In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Scheuchzer complied a twenty-nine’volume Histoire suisse and a critical collection of deeds and other documents, entiled Diploma Helvetiae.


I. Original Works. A complete bibliography of Scheuchzer is in the Steiger article (below) with a list of his correspondence. Among his works are his medical diss., De surdo audiento (Zurich, 1694); “De generatione conchitarum,” in Miscellanea curiosa Academiae naturae curiosorum, IV (Zurich, 1697); Helvetiae stoicheiographia, orographia et oreographia (Zurich, 1716); Homo diluvü testis (1726); and Physica sacra, 3 vols. (Zurich, 1731–1733).

II. Secondary Literature. The most complete account of Scheuchzer is R. Steiger, “Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733),” in Beiblatt zur Vierteljahrsschrift der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Zurich, 21 (1933), 1–75, with a complete bibliography. See also C. Walkmeister, “J. J. Scheuchzer und seiner Zeit,” in Bericht der St. Gallischen naturwissenschaft (1896), 674–401; F. X. Hoeheri, “J. J. Scheuchzer, der Begrunder der physischen Geographine des Hochgebirges” (diss., University of Munich, (1901); and B. Peyer, “J. J. Scheuchzer im europaischen Geistleben seiner Zeit,” in Gesnerus. 2 (1945), 23–33.

P. E. Pilet