PETER  SIMON  PALLAS`S (1741-1811)

Andrej C. Sytin

Herbarium of Komarov Botanical Institute St. Petersburg, 197376 Russia
phone: +7 (812) 234-2236
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It is no accident that interest in natural history and wildlife was strong in Russia in the late eighteenth century. The pioneer of field biological research in botany and zoology was such an attentive and acute observer of nature as Peter Simon Pallas. He was born in 1741 in Berlin, entered the Medico-Surgeons College as a medical student, then studied at Halle, Gottingen and Leiden, and explored the diversity and richness of the natural history collections in the museums of London, Amsterdam and the Hague.

With his lifelong interest in affinity, Pallas developed the idea of representing the relationships of organic nature as trees. It was the first person to publish this, in 1766 in diagrammatic form. The attempt to expose the natural system runs through Pallas`s impressive monographs on mammals: antelopes (1767), rodents (1778, 1811) and birds - buntings (Emberizidae) (1811) as well as on large genera of plants: Spiraea (1784), Gentiana (1788), Astragalus (1801), Salsola (1803) and others.

Pallas was invited to St. Petersburg in 1767 by the Empress Catharine the Great as an eminent naturalist. Many of the plant specimens collected by Pallas on his voyage to Siberia between 1768 and 1774 and southern Russia 1792-1793 have been found in the collections of The Natural History Museum, London. The collections of mammals, birds, insects are dispersed. Pallas published his classical "Reise..." (Travels through various provinces of the Russian Empire) (3 vol., 17711776). He described some 220 species of flowering plants new to science, Mammals 45 and Birds 78.

Pallas`s general aim was to create a complete catalogue of the plants and animals of Russia. It was a too immense task for one man, but Pallas boldly attacked the problem. The first Russian "Flora Rossica" (Russian edition) (1784-1788), with hand-coloured copper engravings of drawings by K.F.Knappe, is a masterpiece of botanical iconography .

It was worthy of the Golden Age of the Russian Empire but, unfortunately, remained unfinished, like many of the brilliant intentions of Catharine II.

Having settled in the Crimea in 1795, Pallas at once set to work seriously to condense his vast mass of notes, and put into shape his great work "Zoographia rosso-asiatica...". He continued to work on the monographs "Species astragalorum..." (1801[-1803])* and on the description of his travels through the southern provinces of Russia and the Crimea, "Bemerkungen..." (1799-1801), with splendid drawings by Chr.G.H. Geissler.

But though Pallas had time to finish the text of his "Zoographia...", his painter Geissler did not have the time to engrave the copper printing plates for the illustrations in Germany. By the peace of Tilsit (1807), Prussia lost half her territory and Napoleon was now the arbiter of Europe. Anxiety about the main work of his life forced Pallas to return to Berlin. Before his death on September 8.1811, just short of his 70th birthday, the old man received the first copy of his "Zoographia ... ", but without the illustrations. 50 drawings were published only in 1831).

In 1830 the Russian Academy of Sciences assigned to Germany its young member Carl Baer with the important mission to find Pallas's legacy and Gessler's drawings. Baer spared no efforts and transmitted to Russia the 50 plates and the majority of the original drawings of animals and a botanical manuscript, "Plantae Selectae Rossicae".
At present all the material is housed in the St.Petersburg branch of the Archives of the Russian Academy of Science... It is paradoxical that only a few zoologist and botanists have turned their attention to this material, in spite of its great value for taxonomy, especially, for problems of typification. Unfortunately for much more than a year the Archives have been closed and Pallas's legacy is absolutly inacessible.

Geissler's drawings in Pallas's heritage are an important part of the depiction of the animal world and the vegetable kingdom. For availability this treasure should be prepared for facsimile publication on compact disc. It should be of interest to a wide range of biologists and historians of science.


I am most grateful to Professor Vladimir Sobolev, Archivist and Director of the St.Petersburg Branch of the Archives of the Russian Academy of Science and its staff for acces to their archives. Dr Charles Jeffrey helped me to translate this text. I thank my colleague and friend Dr Sergei Balandin (Department of Geobotany of the Lomonosov Moscow State University), for help in preparing the illustrations.

* For the botanical illustrations of type specimens of a number species of Astragalus and Oxytropis by Geissler, see the compact disc: Legumes of Northern Eurasia (St. Petersburg: SPCPA Publishing House, 1998) by Yu.R.Roskov, G.P.Yakovlev, A.K.Sytin, S.A.Jezniakowsky, ISBN 5-8085-0019-2.

September 1, 1999