The Linnaean Apostles: Peter Forsskål

2 Forskohlea sp Linn

Forskohlea sp. (LINN 605.1) from the herbarium of the Linnean Society, London

I should note before introducing the second of the students of Carl Linnaeus whom he sent out to gather exotic plants for him, that I am only going to deal with four of them in this series of posts, though there were about 20 by one count and 17 are listed in a booklet available online, The Apostles.  I chose these men because they are the ones I’ve most often encountered in my reading about botanical explorations, and they seemed particularly intriguing, as in the case of this post’s subject, Peter Forsskål (1732-1763).  Like several others in the group, he died on his travels and had interests that stretched well beyond botany.  Born in Finland, he spent much of his childhood near Uppsala and then attended the university there, studying with Linnaeus.  However, his chief interest was in orientalism.  He showed such promise that he was sent to Germany to study with Johann Michaelis, a leading biblical scholar and specialist in Near Eastern languages.  Forsskål again excelled, and his intellectual thirst was so great he continued to study botany as well as entomology and philosophy (Baack, 2013).

There was a liberal political environment at the university that excited Forsskål and inspired him to write a pamphlet called Thoughts on Civil Liberty.  In 1759, he had it published in Swedish and Latin, though only after the Swedish government censors had made some changes to the text.  This essay contributed to a Swedish freedom of the press act in 1766 (Goldberg, 2013).  However, it did not endear Forsskål to the faculty in Uppsala who refused to offer him a faculty position.  Meanwhile, Johann Michaelis urged the Danish king to finance a scholar fluent in Arabic to go to Yemen to study the natural sciences and geography of the Near East.  Scholars from Britain and the Netherlands were investigating this field, and Michaelis wanted to have a direct line to the area.  The King’s advisers were interested in encouraging Danish culture and science, so they even provided extra funds—two years of support for preparations.

Forsskål spent his time studying with Linnaeus on how to describe plants accurately and take notes on geography and climate.  He also continued studying Arabic and biblical history, though as the expedition continued it became more about natural history and less about religious studies.  There were five in the scientific contingent besides Forsskål:  a philologist to study language and custom, a physician, an artist, an assistant, and finally a cartographer and mathematician, Carsten Niebuhr, who was the only one of the six to return alive from the expedition that lasted over six years.  They sailed from Copenhagen in January 1761 and reached Alexandria in September.  Several difficulties kept them in Egypt for almost a year.  Forsskål used his time well once he worked out how to function effectively in the area.  He was attacked and robbed twice while exploring in the desert, so he hired a Bedouin guide who led him to interesting local specimens.  He also grew a beard, took an Arabic name, and dressed in robes.  Eventually he collected 576 species in Egypt; half were new species.  This was the most extensive Egyptian plant collection made in the 18th century.  He also wrote on the fertility of Egyptian soil and the relationship between geography and plant characteristics.  Though I am focusing on plants here (of course), Forsskål also collected insects and shells, sending everything back to Linnaeus.

From Egypt, the group then set out for Yemen, sailing across the Red Sea where Forsskål made extensive observations on marine biology.  In Yemen, he and Niebuhr often explored together, taking multi-day excursions into its biologically and geologically varied regions:  coastal plain and marshes, desert, and highlands.  Local officials and inhabitants were helpful.  In six months he managed to collect 693 different plant species, more than half new to science.  He also took extensive notes on plant habitats and distributions.  It’s obvious that Niebuhr as a cartographer would have had input here, and it’s easy to envision their conversations as they traveled.  Unfortunately, Forsskål only managed to complete six months of collections in Yemen before he died there of malaria in July 1763.  Niebuhr, surviving Yemen, went on with the expedition to India.  He eventually returned to Denmark in 1768 and arranged for the publications of Forsskål’s Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica in 1775, even using his own funds to see the project through to completion.

Needless to say, Linnaeus made good use of the materials Forsskål sent him; these were particularly important because they included the Arabic names for the plants.  Paired with the specimens, these provide information that is still valuable on what was growing in the area.  Forsskål did collect duplicates, but the bulk of his collection, over 1300 sheets, is held in the herbarium of the Natural History Museum in Copenhagen where it is considered the institution’s greatest treasure.  Forsskål was only 31 when he died, but he made a significant contribution to science and also to human rights with his essay on civil liberty.

References

Baack, L. J. (2013). A naturalist of the Northern Enlightenment: Peter Forsskål after 250 years. Archives of Natural History, 40(1), 1–19.

Goldberg, D. (2013). Peter Forsskal: Goettingen prodigy and author of one of the least known jewels of Enlightenment literature. Goettingen Academy of Sciences.

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