Spix, Johann Baptist von

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(b. Höchstadt an der Aisch. Germany, 9 February 1781; d. Munich, Germany, 15 May 1826)


Spix was the son of a surgeon and Bürgerrath. He studied theology at Bamberg and Würzburg, where he decided in 1804 to pursue medicine instead. He graduated M.D. and in 1811 was made an Adjunkt of the Munich Academy; he later became a full member and curator of the zoological collections. In 1815 he and K. F. P. Martius were selected by the Bavarian government to take part in an expedition to South America; in April 1817 they left Trieste in the retinue of the Austrian Archduchess Leopoldina, who had just married the crown prince of Brazil (later Emperor Dom Pedro I). Their party, which also included a number of Austrian scientists, reached Rio de Janeiro in July, and by December of the same year Spix and Martius had set off into the interior to work independently.

Spix and Martius visited the provinces of Sāo Paolo and Minas Gerais, then continued through Minas Novas to Salvador, where they arrived in November 1818, having suffered heat and drought. They sailed to the Amazon estuary by way of Pernambuco, Piauí, and São Luís, at the mouth of the Itapecuru. Spix then left Martius and proceeded upstream as far as the Peruvian frontier, reaching Tabatinga in January 1820. He explored the Rio Negro, then returned to Manaus, where he met Martius. Together they returned in April 1920 to Pará, from which they embarked for Europe two months later. They were back in Munich in December 1820, having accomplished one of the most important scientific expeditions of the nineteenth century.

Spix and Martius were the first European scientists to visit the Amazon after La Condamine. Their collections—including specimens of eightyfive species of mammals. 350 species of birds, nearly 2.700 species of insects, and fifty-seven living animals—provided material for a vast number of works by other scientists. Spix himself was occupied entirely with publishing his findings after his return to Munich. He had planned to expand his study of the skull, published in 1815, and he also had projected a study, for which he had collected a considerable amount of material, of the subterranean zoography and phytography of Bavaria, but he was unable to realize either of these works. Weakened by the fevers that he had suffered on his voyage, he died, leaving other zoologists, including Louis Agassiz, to complete the publication of his works.


I Original Works. Geschichte und Beurtheilung aller Systeme in der Zoologie nach ihrer Entwicklungsfolge von Aristoteles bis auf die egenwärtige Zeit (Nuremberg. 1811) includes a discussion of the difference between “natural” and “artificial” systems. In this book, which follows the German Naturphilosophen, Spix differs with Lamarck, who stated that the species was the only natural group. Cephalogenesis s. capitis ossei structura, formatio et significatio... (Munich, 1815), on the structure of the skull throughout the animal kingdom, lacks importance for zoology. Reise in Brasilien... in den Jahren 1817–20 gemacht und beschrieben von.J. B. von Spix und C. Fr. Ph. von Martius, is in 3 vols. (Munich, 1823–1831). vols. II and III written by Martins. Vol. I was translated into English by H. E. Lloyd, 2 vols. (London, 1824). See also Royal Society, Catalogue of Scientific Papers, V. 779.

II. Secondary Literature. See Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, XXXV (1893), 231–232; and C. F. P. von Martius, Akademische Denkreden (Leipzig, 1866), 599–601. On the expedition see Hermann Ross, “Dem Andenken der Forschungsreise von Spix und Martins in Brasilien 1817–1820,” in Berichte der Deutschen botanischen Gesellschaft, 35 (1917), 119–128.

A. P. M. Sanders