Johann Georg Gmelin
Johann Georg Gmelin
Geschwister-Scholl-Platz, 72074 Tübingen, Germany
Johann received a degree in medicine from the University of Tübingen in 1727.
Gmelin was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1749.
Gmelin obtained a fellowship at the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1728.
Johann Georg was extremely gifted and was early encouraged in his scientific endeavors by his father, who had a natural history collection and a laboratory. In their travels, the elder Gmelin also introduced his son to the study of the Württemberg mineral springs. From the time Gmelin was fourteen he was able to follow university lectures. He held his first disputation when he was seventeen and a year later, in 1727, graduated in medicine. Among his teachers were the philosopher and mathematician Georg Bernhard Bilfinger and the botanist and anatomist Johann Georg Duvernoy.
In 1725 both Gmelin's teachers, Georg Bernhard Bilfinger and Johann Georg Duvernoy, went to St. Petersburg and thus determined the destination of young Gmelin’s first scientific voyage. In St. Petersburg Gmelin was allowed to attend meetings of the Academy of Sciences. In 1728 he was offered a fellowship and in 1730 permitted to lecture at the Academy. He became professor of chemistry and natural history in 1731, and then academician. In 1733, when he had intended to return home, Gmelin took part instead in an imperial scientific expedition to eastern Siberia with the historian Gerhard Friedrich Müller and the astronomer Louis Delisle de la Croyère. Müller was to survey archives and records, Delisle de la Croyère to determine geographical coordinates, and Gmelin to study the natural history of the territories to be visited. They were supported by a party of six students, two painters, two hunters, two miners, four land surveyors, and twelve soldiers. They were expected to join, by land, the sea expedition to Kamchatka led by Captains Bering and Chirikov.
Gmelin’s expedition left St. Petersburg on 8 July 1733 for Tobolsk, which they expected to reach early in 1734 and where they hoped to make a lengthy stay. They proceeded eastward with many side expeditions, exploring territories along the Irtysh, Ob, and Tom rivers, through Krasnoyarsk to Yeniseysk and then through Irkutsk to the Chinese (now Mongolian) frontier at Kyakhta. In 1735 they thoroughly explored the Transbaikal region proceeding through Selenginsk and Nerchinsk, then along the Lena River to the north. In September 1735 they reached Yakutsk from which they undertook numerous expeditions.
In November 1736 a fire destroyed most of Gmelin’s equipment, instruments, books, collections, and drawings. Facing additional difficulties, Gmelin and Müller realized they could not succeed in joining the Bering-Chirikov expedition and so received permission to continue explorations on their return journey. They left Yakutsk in May 1737 to explore the regions along the Angara and Tunguska rivers. At Yeniseysk they met Georg Wilhelm Steller, a bold and tough explorer who was sent from St. Petersburg to join them. Gmelin, however, sent him to the east with a small party.
Gmelin meanwhile traveled to the north along the Yenisey River, then turned to the south and reached Krasnoyarsk in February 1740. Müller separated from Gmelin’s party, which next explored the region between the Yenisey and Ob, the Baraba Steppe, and then advanced to the southwest to the Ishim and Wagai steppes and to the Caspian Sea. Eventually they explored the mines in the Ural Mountains. The party reached St. Petersburg on 28 February 1743 after nine and one-half years of travel.
Upon his return Gmelin resumed his academic functions at the Academy and worked on the scientific accounts of his journey. His four-volume Flora sibirica contains descriptions of 1,178 species and illustrations of 294 of these. Although primarily a botanist, Gmelin had a good knowledge of other natural sciences of his time and with his travels contributed to the knowledge of the zoology, geography, geology, ethnography, and natural resources of the explored regions. He used the barometer to determine altitude and was the first to find that the level of the Caspian Sea is below that of the Mediterranean and Black seas. Greatly astonishing the world’s scientists, in January 1735 he recorded at Yeniseysk the lowest temperatures observed anywhere up to that time. In addition, he made another important finding in parts of eastern Siberia where a subsurface layer of soil, several feet thick, remained frozen even in summer. Gmelin attempted to measure its thickness.
In his preface to the Flora sibirica, Gmelin gave a remarkable overall picture of the nature of central Siberia, pointing out that western Siberia looks very much like eastern Europe, but that after crossing the Yenisey River he had the impression of being in another continent. Once on the other side, he saw rivers with clear water, new forms of plants and animals, a strange landscape with strange people - in short, a new world. Thus the Yenisey River seemed to him the natural frontier between Europe and Asia, an idea which had not occurred to any geographer before him. As a whole, the results of Gmelin’s expedition represent the most important early contribution to the natural history and geography of the vast Siberian mainland.
In 1747 Gmelin was granted a year’s leave from the Academy of Sciences and returned to Tübingen, where he remained until his death. In 1749 he became professor of medicine, botany, and chemistry at the University of Tübingen. In 1751 he was appointed director of the university's botanic garden.
Gmelin obtained a fellowship at the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1728. He was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1749.