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Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

Born 1752
Died 1840

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German naturalist and anthropologist, born May 11, 1752, Gotha; died January 22, 1840, Göttingen.

Biography of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

Physician, anthropologist, naturalist, physiologist, historian and bibliographer, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach is generally regarded as the founder of physical and scientific anthropology. He first used the word ”race” in 1775 to classify humans into five divisions: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. Blumenbach also coined the term "Caucasian" because he believed that the Caucasus region of Asia Minor produced "the most beautiful race of men". Both Carl von Linné (1707-1778) and Blumenbach stated that humans are one species, and the latter remarked on the arbitrary nature of his proposed categories. Blumenbach was also one of the founders of comparative anatomy and the first to lecture on the topic.

Blumenbach was born into a cultured, wealthy Protestant family. His father, Heinrich, was prorector - assistant headmaster - and professor at the Gymnasium Ernestinum in Gotha. His mother, Charlotte Eleonore Hedwig Buddeus, was the daughter of a high government official in Gotha and the granddaughter of a Jena theologian. Thus, from a very early age, Blumenbach was exposed to both literature and natural science.

After completing his Gymnasium studies in 1769, he first attended the University of Jena in 1769 to study medicine. Here he attended the lectures of the mineralogist Johann Ernst Immanuel Walch, the author of Naturgeschichte der Versteinerungen, which interested him in the study of fossils.

Soon, however, he changed to Göttingen where professor Christian W. Büttner, an omniscient eccentric renowned for his linguistic skills, after a sustained pause restarted his conversatorium on natural history. Büttner’s vivid accounts of travel and foreign peoples, occasioned his doctoral dissertation, and gave him the impetus to start his widely admired anthropological-ethnographic collection. His dissertation, De generis humani varietate nativa liber, which became world famous and is considered one of the basic works on anthropology. He was conferred doctor of medicine at the University of Göttingen on September 18, 1775 and already on October 33 that year held his first lecture.

Blumenbach joined the faculty of the University of Göttingen as curator of the natural history collection and extraordinary professor in February 1776, in November 1778 full professor of medicine, holding that position until his death in 1840.

Through marriage in 1778 Blumenbach became the son-in-law of Georg Brandes, who held an influential position in the administration of the University of Göttingen, and a brother in law of Christian Gottlieb Heyne (1729-1812), the classics scholar. These connections helped strengthen Blumenbach’s influence at the university. In 1816 he was appointed professor primarius of the faculty of medicine. In 1784 (19: 1776) he became a member of the Königliche Societät der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, and in 1812 became permanent secretary to the society’s physikalish-mathematischen Classe. Blumenbach was either a regular or corresponding member of more than seventy other academies and scientific organisations, including the Institut de France, the Royal Society of London and Linnean Society of London, the Königliche Akademie zu Berlin, the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg, and the American Philosophical Society. He carried on extensive correspondence with scientists, the most noteworthy of whom were Victor Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), Peter Camper (1722-1789), and Charles Bonnet (1720-1793).

He was unusually successful as a teacher, and many of his students who later became famous, such as Karl Ernst von Hoff, claimed that Blumenbach had given them the decisive impetus for the formation of their ideas.

Blumenbach travelled relatively little. Besides some small convalescence trips, he made a journey through Switzerland in 1783, in 1791-1792 he travelled Holland and England. In 1806 he visited Paris in order to influence Napoleon favourably for the University of Göttingen. He celebrated his 50th doctoral anniversary in 1825. In his honour a travel scholarship was established and a memorial coin was coined.

Blumenbach’s fame is based mainly on his role in the founding of scientific anthropology. He was one of the first scientists to view man as an object of natural history, and saw in him «the most perfect of all domesticated animals». On the other hand, he gave special emphasis to the gap between man and animal and attacked all political or social abuses of anthropological ideas, in particular that black men were on a lower level of humanity than white men. In his dissertation one can find the first reliable survey of the characteristics and distribution of the human races; its most significant points were included in almost all later anthropological classification.

Blumenbach is one of the greatest of natural scientists, and may be considered the founder of anthropology in recent times. He was the first university teacher to lecture on comparative anatomy, a learned well versed in philosophy and classical education, as well as a highly original character whose vivid spirit highly aroused the attention of his listeners.

Blumenbach’s ideas on Bildungstrieb (Nisus formativus) made a great impression on his contemporaries - as well as later scientists. They are of historical significance because they offered some new arguments in favour of epigenesis to the conflict between it and preformation. However, they were very short-lived, and did not exert any lasting influence.

Blumenbach view of the nature was a philosophical one; he searched for the causes of things, not satisfying himself with the mere counting and description of phenomena. He approached anthropology with the mind of the natural scientist. He recognised that, in the same way as domestic animals come in varieties, all known groups of mankind originated from one common, basic race, which he divided into five. His activity as a teacher comprised three fields of natural history: mineralogy, botany, and zoology, the latter being his main discipline.

Blumenbach's Handbuch der Naturgeschichte (1779) is the first authored on a anatomical-physiological basis. It went through many editions and was translated into many languages. Although Blumenbach tended to follow the Linnean system, this work ushered in a new era in natural history. It contains an abundance of new or hitherto insufficiently evaluated morphological and ecological findings, from which Blumenbach drew conclusions that led to a more modern concept of the plant and animal kingdoms. He concluded from the spread of certain parasites found only in the domestic pig that such parasites did not exists as long as pigs were not domesticated and that they could therefore not possibly have existed since the creation of the world. Such ideas, revolutionary in their day, were carefully presented in various places in the Handbuch, and were demonstrated by concrete examples.

In connection with the morphological analysis and geological dating of fossil plants and animals, Blumenbach developed ideas that were still unknown to most of the scientists of his day and were touched upon by only a few others, such as Soulavie. He came to the conclusion that there had been groups of plants and animals, now extinct, which could not be classified in the system of recent forms of life, and he even attempted to draw up a geological-paleontological time scale.

His book Beyträge zur Naturgeschichte contains several essays on the «variability» of nature, a concept that was not understood very well. It also showed that the earth, with all its flora and fauna, had a very long history. Blumenbach was one of the earliest thinkers to recognise the «historicalness» of nature, and therefore occupies an important place in the history of evolution theory.

An enthusiastic vitalist, Blumenbach substituted the word Lebenskraft (vital force) with that of Bildungstrieb - nisus formativus.

Blumenbach realized the value of travel research in the natural sciences, and gave his students may opportunities to participate in scientific expeditions. One of the students influenced by Blumenbach was Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), another was Prince Maximilian Alexander Philipp of Wied (1782-1867), who became a respected naturalist, ethnologist and explorer. He explored the jungles of Brazil, and, a talented artist, became famous for his explorations in North America.

Blumenbach was a personal friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

In his classification of the subdivisions of the human race Blumenbach was the first to utilize facial configuration as well as skin colour, and his system has survived to the present with but little modification. His most important anthropological work was a collection of 60 human craniums described in his Collectionis suae Craniorum Diversarum Gentium Illustrate Decades (1790-1828).

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