Baltic German natural scientists in the science system of the Russian empire
erki tammiksaar

The science system of the Russian empire was established by Peter the Great, who in 1724 founded the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences, which had departments of natural sciences and the humanities, or 'Departments I and II'. As there was no tradition of scientific research in Russia at the time, the Academy had to invite scientists from abroad. The invitation was mostly accepted by Germans, a cultural space with long traditions of scientific research, together with many universities, and not enough positions for everybody. Thus, the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences acquired young and promising German scientists from the very start and, as a result, total control over the Academy was in their hands as well. From the point of view of world science this development was especially significant regarding the first department, which included astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, zoology, botany and physiology.

German control over the Academy survived later as well: as new candidates for Academicians' posts could be nominated only by regular members of the Academy, the German academics tended to prefer their fellow countrymen. This did not clash with the general principles of the Academy, which stipulated that the main membership criterion was scientific qualification, and here the new members naturally excelled. This guaranteed the Germans a leading position in Russian science, especially in natural sciences. The trend continued in the 19th century.

The Academy members shaped the development of their relevant speciality in the entire empire: they elected new Academy members, filled the posts of other academic jobs in the empire and, in the 19th century, also elected professors for Russian universities. Additionally, the Academics in the capital city were greatly valued experts in many scholarly fields, respected lecturers in the metropolitan applied universities and warmly welcomed as tutors of children at the imperial court. Academics also directly communicated with ministries and ministers and the nobility of St Petersburg. Depending on personal characteristics of an Academic, this could constitute tremendous power, which greatly influenced the success of a branch of science and its financial backing, as well as an opportunity to direct political developments within the empire, be it science politics, defending a specific region, e.g. the autonomy of the Baltic Sea provinces, etc.

Unlike the 18th century, early 19th century Russian science, and especially natural science, was increasingly dominated not only by people from Germany but local Germans, who mostly came from the Baltic Sea provinces, i.e. the territories of today's Estonia and Latvia. They had various advantages over the Russians.


Germans in the Estonian and Latvian territories had an old, established school system, but in the 18th century they lacked a joint university, which had existed in Tartu in the 17th century. The reform of the Russian state system, as a result of which Russia got ministries in the early 19th century, including the Ministry of Popular Education, made it possible to establish a university, because this ministry improved the new school system, from parish school to university. In the course of establishing a common educational system, Moscow University, founded in 1755, was reorganised. Other universities were founded as well, including Harkov, Kazan, Tartu and Vilnius, forming five separate educational districts, each headed by a curator who administered the educational life of the district.

Tartu University managed to attain a special status, with its own laws and German-language teaching (also true in lower-level schools). The latter factor was essential in the further development of the university, as Germany, although politically fragmented, occupied the leading role in 19th century science, safeguarded by a university system that permitted academic freedom. Tartu thus never lacked excellent German lecturers, because the university there was structured in the same way as in Germany. The Russian-language and Polish-language university in Vilnius did not enjoy such advantages. Additionally, these places also lacked excellent professors and the university infrastructure was weak. This was the main reason why the Russian-language universities, unlike Tartu, did not become research universities in the first half of the 19th century.

For the German minority in the Baltic Sea provinces, re-establishing Tartu University in 1802 signified more than simply opening a university. The high level of study and research work, academic freedom, strong university infrastructure and its economic insurance simplified the Baltic Germans' ability to go to university, raised their self-awareness and led to the formation of a common Baltic German national group. Although Tartu, too, had its own failings in the early 19th century, the teaching level was, nevertheless, much higher than elsewhere in the empire. Being better educated than other national groups of the empire, and having a determined wish to prove themselves and good contacts in St Petersburg were the advantages that made many Baltic Germans brilliant scientists who made their name throughout the empire and outside its borders. The high research level of Tartu University was the reason why the central authorities founded the Institute of Professors there (1828-33), with the aim of training graduates of Russian universities to become professors for their universities (the Institute produced a total of 22 professors). One of the remarkable graduates was the surgeon Nikolai Pirogov.

Considering the above, Tartu University played an important role in the Russian science system. It is not surprising that, beginning in the 1820s, scientists who had either studied or taught at Tartu were increasingly elected as members of St Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Being an Academic brought with it great opportunities, and as Tartu University scientists had a better academic background than their colleagues from other universities of the empire, their numbers in the St Petersburg Academy gradually grew. The first scientist to teach in Tartu and to later be elected an Academic of St Petersburg Academy was the chemist Alexander Nicolaus Scherer, and the second was the embryologist and palaeontologist Heinrich Christian Pander. However, far more important was the election of the first rector of Tartu University, the physicist Georg Friedrich Parrot, as an active member of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1826. It was Parrot who then paved the way for his promising former students to attain Academy membership and, thanks to his support, many a Baltic German scientist found a job at the Academy, the most important of whom was undoubtedly the diverse natural scientist Karl Ernst von Baer. The Academy also offered the status of Active Member to the geographer Adam Johann von Krusenstern, the first Russian to sail around the world, but he preferred his work as the head of the St Petersburg naval cadet corps.

Baer's election as a member of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences was a great victory for that institution, because this was someone who exerted a positive and long-term influence on zoology, botany, physiology and mineralogy. On Baer's direct recommendation, eminent scholars, such as the natural scientist and explorer Alexander Theodor von Middendorff, the geologist Gregor von Helmersen and the physiologist Philipp Ovsjannikov from Tartu University, became members of the Academy.

Baer's role in organising and influencing science exceeded the boundaries of the Academy. Embryological research, in which he was involved in Königsberg (1817-34), was somewhat neglected while he was in St Petersburg (1835-62), because Baer got to know Krusenstern and, supported by the Academy of Sciences, arranged geographic expeditions to the empire's inland, which was largely unknown at the time. Krusenstern favoured Baltic German naval officers to head the expeditions to the Russian polar territories (e.g. Ferdinand von Wrangell, Otto von Kotzebue and Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen), whereas Baer supported Baltic German doctors and natural sciences graduated from Tartu University in the exploration of Siberia. This was no mean task for the Academy, which was chronically in financial difficulties, but Baer's strong contacts with the Russian imperial court (he was a tutor to the children of the mighty grand duchess Jelena Pavlovna) and his acquaintance with the minister of finance enabled him to find means to carry out the expeditions.

Perhaps the most significant expedition organised by Baer was Alexander Theodor von Middendorff's trip to explore the local flora on the Taimyr peninsula and permafrost in northern and eastern parts of Siberia. As a result, several previously unknown areas in Siberia were properly researched; additionally, Middendorff's expedition led to adding Outer Manchuria to the Russian empire in the 1850s, which had belonged to China previously. Besides scientific and political results, Middendorff's expedition also had a significant science-policy outcome. Thanks to Baer, Middendorff became a famous man, publishing comprehensive articles about his explorations in the press. Upon his return home, Middendorff was received as a national hero. Baer used his popularity to found the Russian Geographical Society, where the leading positions again were held by Baltic German natural scientists (e.g. Ferdinand von Wrangell, Wilhelm Struve, Gregor von Helmersen, Alexander von Bunge Jun and Eduard von Toll), who did not relinquish their positions until the end of the 19th century, and led dozens of expeditions to various parts of the Russian empire.

Leading such expeditions and analysing the material later enabled several Baltic German natural scientists to become members of the Academy, e.g. Leopold von Schrenck and palaeontologist Friedrich Schmidt. The Baltic German supremacy in the first department of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences was thus guaranteed from 1830 to 1860. Although the Russian nationalists kept pointing this out, beginning in the 1860s, the situation did not emerge only on corporative grounds, as the preconditions of becoming elected an Academic were high scholarly qualifications and the innovative nature of their work, and not national origin. This is also proved by the fact that, beginning in the 1870s, when the sums of money given to Russian universities started to increase as compared with Tartu University, their academic level rose as well, and the percentage of Baltic Germans at the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences in the last decades of the 19th century decreased considerably. Russian-language academics now held the upper hand. The same tendency occurred in the entire Russian science system. This was not caused by the poor level of the Baltic German scientists, but by the fact that at the end of the 19th century - unlike the previous century when the Russian scientists were practically non-existent - their national group was too small to dominate the increasingly well-functioning and expanding science system of the empire.

Erki Tammiksaar (1969), PhD, director of the Centre for Science Studies at the Estonian University of Life Sciences, has published articles dealing mostly with the history of science, including that of the Baltic Germans.

ESTONIAN CULTURE 1/2007 (9) · ISSN 1406-8478