Sternberg, Kaspar Maria von

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(b. Prague, Bohemia [now in Czechoslovakia], 6 January 1761; d. Březina castle, Radnice, 20 December 1838)

botany, geology, paleontology.

Sternberg was the scion of an old landed family that took its title from Sternberg castle in the Sázava valley forty-five kilometers southeast of Prague. His eldest brother, Joachim, was fond of mathematics; he also founded an iron factory and took a keen interest in mining and metallurgy, on which he wrote prolifically. Strongly influenced by the activities and philanthropy of his family. Sternberg studied theology at first privately and later at Rome. He then pursued a celibate ecclesiastical career, being appointed successively canon and counselor to the court of the prince-bishop of Regensburg. In 1791 he was nominated counselor to the court at Freisingen.

His duties at Regensburg involved the control of woods and forests and induced him to study botany and later to found a botanical garden there. In 1805 and 1806 he accompanied the prince-bishop to Paris, where he met many prominent scientists including Faujas de Saint-Fond, who initiated him in the study of fossil plants. Here he received and studied carefully, with the aid of collections in Paris, Ernst von Schlotheim’s book (1804) on fossil plant impressions in Coal Measures. In 1808 he inherited the family estate at Radnice with Březina castle and thereafter devoted himself to botanical studies and the promotion of natural science in Bohemia. When, shortly before his death thirty years later, he presided over a large congress of naturalists at Prague, he and Brongniart were recognized as the two leading paleobotanists in the world.

Sternberg studied especially the Carboniferous phytopaleontology but he also published some papers dealing with the trilobites and Pleistocene fauna. He had ready access to fossils and fossil impressions found in the coalfields on his own estate and in the “transitional rocks” near Prague. He tried to interpolate the species of fossil plants into the botanical system by discarding the old names given to the fossil forms and applying existing botanical correlations to them. Thereby he greatly increased the proper botanical significance of fossil floras and paved the way for a scientific treatment of paleobotany. His chief work, the seven-volume Versuch einer geognistisch-botanischen Darstellung der Flora der Vorwelt (1820–1833), described two hundred fossil species of plants with the aid of sixty folio plates. The ideas expressed in this work expanded those of Ernst von Schlotheim but were based on a narrower range of material than that contained in the contemporary publications of Brongniart, one of the Paris naturalists who helped to turn Sternberg to botanical pursuits. William Buckland sized up the situation fairly when he wrote: “We owe to the labours of Schlotheim, Sternberg and Ad. Brognniart the foundation of such a systematic arrangement of fossil plants, as enables us to enter, by means of the analogies of recent plants, into the difficult question of the Ancient Vegetation of the Earth, during those periods when the strata were under the process of formation” (Geology and Mineralogy, I [London, 1837], 454).

Sternberg’s name is commemorated in the technical terminology for fossil organisms, both animal and vegetable, Sternbergia, Sternbergella, and Parasternbergella. The plants include several small crocuslike species native to Europe, such as Sternbergia lutea. The mineral sternbergite is a natural sulfide of silver and iron (AgFe2S3) crystallized in orthorhombic prisms and first discovered in the mines at Joachimsthal (Jachymov), Bohemia.

In 1818–1821 Sternberg was one of the chief founders of the Bohemian National Museum, Prague. He acted as its president from 1822 to his death and bequeathed his library and his geological and botanical collections to it. He had close dealings with Goethe and their correspondence has been published. Today his botanical, geological, and paleontological collections remain in the National Museum. His written works are in the Museum of National Literature, Prague, and his diplomas, correspondence, and other literary remains are in the department of the State Archives at Beneŝov.


I. Original Works. Sternberg wrote all his books and articles in German. F. Palacký, Leben des Grafen K. Sternberg . . . (see below), contains a bibliography with 74 titles, among which the most important are Galvanische Versuche inanchen Krankheiten; herausgeben mit einer Einleitung in Bezug auf die Erregungstheoric von J.-U.-G. Schaeffer (Regensburg, 1803): Botanische Wande rungen in den Böhmerwald . . . (Nuremberg, 1806): Reisen in die rhaetischen Alpen, vorzüglich in botanischer Hinsicht (Nuremberg-Regensburg, 1806): Reise durch Tyrol in die Oesterreichischen I’rorin :err Italiens in Friihjahr 1804 . . . Revisio saxifragarum iconibus illustrata (Regensburg, 1810, 1822); Abhandlung über die Pflanzenkunde in Böhmen, 2 vols. (Prague, 1817–1818); Versuch einter geognostisch-botanischen Darstellung der Flora der Vorwelt . . ., 7 vols. (Leipzig - Prague, 1820 – 1833); and Umrisse einer Geschichte der böhmischen Bergwerke, 2 vols. (Prague, 1836 – 1838). His correspondence with Goethe was published as Briefwechsel zwischen Goethe und Kaspar Graf von Sternberg (1820–1832), F.T. Bratranek, ed. (Vienna, 1866).

II. Secondary Literature. The chief biographies are F. Palacký, Leben des Grafen K. Sternberg . . . nebst einem akademischen Vortrag über der Grafen K. und F. Sternberg Leben und Wirken . . . (Prague, 1868), and V. Zázvorka, “Kašpar Maria hrabě Šternberk, jeho život a vźynam,” in Zvlástni otisk z časopisu Národniho musea, 113 (Prague, 1939), 1 – 22, with portraits. See also W. Whewell, in Proceedings of the Geological Society (London), 3 (1838 – 1842), 72 – 74; and C. von Wurzbach, Biographisches Lexikon des kaiserthums Oesterreich, XXXVIII (Vienna, 1879), 252 – 266.

Robert P. Beckinsale

Jan KrejČÍ