Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel

Famous scholars from Kiel:

Johann Christian Fabricius

Johann Christian Fabricius – Professor of Natural History, Economics and Cameralistics at Kiel – and world-famous Entomologist

By appointing Johann Christian Fabricius (1745-1808) to a professorship at Kiel, the Christiana Albertina University became host to one of the most important biologists of the generation following Carl von Linné. Fabricius recognized that the environment had a decisive influence on the development of life. In addition to his relatively short publications on economics, the extensive works in which he described hundreds of insect species for the first time are still fundamentally important today. Although Professor Fabricius was greatly liked by his students, he did not always receive the support that he hoped for from the University. However, his worldwide fame still gives a special importance and grandeur to the biological collections of Kiel University.

Fabricius, who is still a recognized entomologist throughout the world, described about 10,000 new insect species in his publications, thus becoming one of the most important systematic classifiers in the field. He saw the classification essentially as an aid to a better understanding of the workings of nature. Like Linné, Fabricius believed that through the descriptions and increasingly precise distinguishing of the species, one could reach conclusions about the principles of nature. Many correct ideas regarding biological evolution run through his publications, and these went far beyond the theories of species that were current at the time, and partly anticipated the concepts of Darwin.

Even while still a child, Johann Christian made an early contribution to nomenclature by converting names in notes written by his father using the Tournefort system into the new system that had just been introduced by Carl von Linné. Since that time he wanted to study under Linné - and eventually he succeeded in that aim, as the only student from Schleswig-Holstein. His admiration of Linné seems to have also been the driver of an inner wish to outshine his master in an area of natural history that was less familiar to Linné. He continued to develop his method still further, and eventually applied it to all the insects to which he had access in the growing European collections.

Fabricius was in close contact with the prominent naturalists of his time, such as Georg Christian (von) Oeder (1728-1791), the publisher of the "Flora Danica" and Linné's student Daniel Carlsson Solander (1733-1782), with whom he collaborated in research on the growing collection of the British Museum and on entomological publications.

When Solander accompanied Joseph Banks, as his assistant, on James Cooke's first voyage around the world, Fabricius helped in advance with the scientific fitting out of the expedition, and when the scientists returned Fabricius was the first to have the opportunity to study the insects of the South Sea Islands. When Cooke's second voyage around the world set out from London, with Johann Reinhold and Georg Forster as the expedition's naturalists, Fabricius was already long acquainted with the two. On their return he was given a portion of the plant specimens collected from the Pacific islands; he brought them personally to Kiel, thus endowing the University Herbarium with an important and famous collection.

In 1776 the Christiania Albertina University offered Fabricius the chair of Professor of Natural History, Economics and Cameralistics, which he accepted. He felt at home in Kiel, but complained about insufficient resources and equipment. He wrote: "I lived extremely comfortably, but I soon found that here I had none of the equipment and facilities that I needed for my science. When I was appointed at Kiel I was promised that I would have a collection under my control, with an 'economical garden' to be establishes under my supervision, but the realisation of that was continually prevented by the difficult state of the academic finances." As the library did not have an adequate collection for his field of research, he started to travel. He gave lectures in winter and used the summer for his entomological studies. That resulted in a large number of publications, such as the "Genera" and "The Journeys to Norway", describing his expeditions with Professor Georg Heinrich Weber of Kiel University.

In about 1780 he was forced by his financial situation to consider leaving Kiel and going to England, where he was also being offered better working conditions. When his students learned of this they signed a petition, which succeeded (along with a promise of a more appropriate rate of remuneration) in persuading the Professor to stay. In 1781 and again in 1795 he also became Prorektor (Deputy Vice-Chancellor) for a short time. In 1785 the first volume of his "Polizeischriften" was published, which was a collection of articles about the reasons for the development of economics studies, with special reference to Denmark and the Duchies. That was followed by a second part in 1788.

In 1792 he tried to succeed the recently deceased Christian Cay Lorenz Hirschfeld (1742-1792) as supervisor of the Düsternbrook fruit trees nursery, so that he could finally have his "economical garden", but Johann Jakob Paul Moldenhawer (1766-1827) was given the position instead and the garden remained only a dream.

He presented his lectures about the concept of the "economics of nature" at Kiel over a period of thirty years and developed it further - and left behind him, in the form of his entomological system, a work that is still of fundamental importance today. His collection of plants formed the basis of the University Herbarium, and his insect collection now belongs to the Zoological Museum.

In the autumn of 1806, after he had been released from his formal duties and had become a Counsellor to the Royal Danish State, Fabricius returned from Paris to Kiel. That was his last major journey. He died in Kiel on the 3rd of March 1808 and was buried at the St. Jürgen Cemetery.

Dr. rer. nat. Martin Nickol

First published in: »Christiana Albertina, Forschungen und Berichte aus der Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel«, Issue 68

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