Steller, Georg Wilhelm

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(b. Windsheim, Germany, 10 March 1709; d. Tyumen, Siberia, Russia, 12 November 1746),

geography, biology.

Steller (whose real name was Stöller) was born in a small town in Franconia, where his father was an organist. He first studied Lutheran theology at Wittenberg but in 1731 entered the medical faculty of the University of Halle and began to devote himself to botanical research. Apparently he never passed a formal medical examination; but in 1734 he arrived in Danzig via Berlin, was accepted as physician in the Russian army, which was stationed there, and then continued on to St. Petersburg. Steller then worked as an assistant to Johann Amman, a botanist with the Russian Academy of Sciences, and gained a powerful patron in Archbishop Feofan Prokopovich, in whose house he lived.

Steller’s desire to join the elaborately planned second Bering expedition as a research member was realized in 1736 when he was nominated a member. In the spring of 1738 he was appointed an assistant at the St. Petersburg Academy and left to join the other members of the expedition. In Yeniseysk, he met the botanist J. G. Gmelin and G. F. Müller. In 1740 they arrived at Okhotsk, and Steller continued with Bering to Kamchatka to study nature and folklore.

In 1741 Steller sailed under Bering’s command on the St. Peter for America. He was the first natural historian to land on the coast of Alaska, where he collected specimens for several hours before the ship turned west. The return journey met with great difficulties. The crew, decimated by scurvy, was forced to pass the winter under great hardships on Bering Island. Steller survived; and returning to Petropavlovsk in August 1742, he lingered further in Kamchatka, where he pursued his research in natural history and tried to complete his manuscripts. In 1746, en route to St. Petersburg, he was arrested for alleged insubordination as he was approaching the Ural Mountains. He was soon released but died of a fever in the fall of the same year.

Steller was a pioneer in the study of the natural history and geography of Kamchatka and Alaska. His great collections and many manuscripts were sent to the academy in St. Petersburg, and several manuscripts were published posthumously. His Beschreibung von dem Lande Kamtschatka (1774) is valuable especially because of his description of the life and habits of the inhabitants and because of his detailed illustrations. His journal of the expedition to Alaska was published by Pallas. On Bering Island, Steller studied the large sea mammals, including the remarkable Steller’s sea cow, Hydrodamalis gigas, soon to be extinct. Botanical and zoological material from his collections has been published also by Gmelin in his Flora sibirica and by Linnaeus and Pallas.

Steller had a difficult and disharmonious character and a violent temper; but as an explorer and field worker, he was rugged, enthusiastic, and indomitable.


I. Original Works. Steller’s major work is Beschreibung von dem Lande Kamtschatka (Frankfurt–Leipzig, 1774; St. Petersburg, 1793). His travel journal with the description of Bering Island and the voyage to Alaska was published by Pallas in Neue Nordische Beyträge zur physikalischen und geographischen Erd-und vöker–beschreibung . . ., 2 (1781), 255–301; 5 (1793), 123–236, also issued separately; and 6 (1793), 1–26. An English trans. is F. A. Golder, Bering’s Voyage . . ., II (New York, 1925). An abbreviated popular ed. is M. Heydrich, Von Kamtschatka nach Amerika (Leipzig, 1926).

Steller’s description of the sea animals near Bering Island is “De bestiis marinis,” in Novi Commentarii Academiae Scientiarum Petropolitanae, 2 (1751), 289–398, with German trans., Beschreibung von sonderbaren Meerthieren (Halle, 1753). Letters from Steller to Gmelin are in G. H. T. Plieninger, ed., Joannis Georgii Gmelini reliquiae quae supersunt (Stuttgart, 1861).

II. Secondary Literature. The major source is Leonhard Stejneger, Georg Wilhelm Steller, The Pioneer of Alaskan Natural History (Cambridge, Mass., 1936).

Sten Lindroth