Erik Laxman was a pioneering scientist of the 18th century active in Siberia. Laxman was keenly observing his environment and experimenting with new ideas. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, he often explored the economic potential of the regions he visited. In the era before the formation of scientific disciplines, Laxman’s interests covered a wide range of subjects. In this way, he accumulated collections that have stimulated later research long after his era. In most fields of interest, he was the pioneer in Russia, but also in the forefront of progress in the international scientific community. His most significant contributions were in the field of botany, entomology and mineralogy but he also contributed to climatology, meteorology and the geographical and ethnographic knowledge of the Russian Empire and beyond in Japan.
Due to the humble beginnings of his life, Erik Laxman had to fight for his living and his academic education was inadequate due to lack of funds to pay for study. Erik Laxman had to leave the University in Turku without graduating. He earned a living as pastor’s assistant and after moving to St. Petersburg managed to graduate from the Finnish Lutheran Consistory to serve as a pastor. Laxman obtained a position as teacher of science at the German School in Saint Petersburg in 1762.
Appointment at the German School was possible when Laxman became acquainted with the German geographer Anton Friedrich Büsching (1724-1793) who had arrived there in 1761. Büsching had just then completed his magnum opus Erdbescreibung (Description of the Earth), which was a pioneering comprehensive geographical description of the world. In the German School Laxman was teaching natural history and botany and producing learning materials in collaboration with Büsching. (Väre 2012:118, Lagus 1890:14).
Theologian and geographer Anton Friedrich Büsching (1724-1793). Copper engraving by Christoph Melchior Roth.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.
In his post at the German School Laxman improved his German in addition to Swedish, Finnish, Russian and Latin. Finnish he learned in the Finnish-speaking environment of Savonlinna, Swedish was mother tongue from home. Latin was taught at all schools. He had the opportunity to learn Russian at home in Savonlinna where – after the Russian conquest of Savonlinna – Russian officers had stayed as lodgers. Most probably Laxman was also capable of communicating in French, although evidence is missing.
Two years at the German School was for Laxman a time of learning and establishing connections. A significant contact at the school was also the young German scientist Johannes Beckman (1739-1811) who stayed those years in Saint Petersburg as an expert in technology, trade and agriculture. Laxman obtained a good reputation at the school. Other contacts in Saint Petersburg included Finnish researcher K.J. Melart, Swedish explorer J. P. Falck who had participated in Petter Forsskål’s expedition in Arabia. With Falck Laxman established a lasting friendship. (Lagus 1890:16).
With Büsching Laxman had managed to establish contact with the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences and particularly Gerhard-Friderich Müller (1705-1783), the co-founder of the Academy in the 1720s. This opened Laxman access to the archives and collections of the Academy.
Büsching helped him to secure the post of pastor of the German expatriate parish in Barnaul, Siberia. When embarking for Siberia, Laxman thus already had an understanding of the status of knowledge regarding Siberia. Laxman also was appointed a correspondent of the Academy. Upon leaving Saint Petersburg for Barnaul, Erik Laxman married Kristina Margareta née Runnenberg from Savonlinna. Apparently also Laxman’s widowed mother joined the newlyweds in Siberia. (Lagus 1890:18-19).
The small congregation was spread out over distances requiring travels of over 1600 km in Siberia. This gave Laxman plenty of opportunity to explore. The appointment as pastor was for a fixed five-year term. According to one source, Laxman did have some professional interest for working as a pastor at a later stage he was briefly exploring possibility to move to a parish in Finland to serve as a pastor there (Hintikka 1938b:4-6). Barnaul and its environments were at the time an area of growth of the mining industry, where new mines and settlements were established in a rapid succession.
The parsonage of Laxman in Barnaul transformed into a natural history collection and the yard into botanical garden when his collections of mammals, plants, insects and minerals accumulated in the house and he experimented with the cultivation of plants (Hintikka 1938b). Industrious Laxman took nulla dies sine linea (no day without a line) from Pliny the Elder as his motto. He was inspired by Pliny’s account of explorers who ventured into the unknown for the sake of knowledge and thought that he worked for no other reward than benefit to the future generations (Lagus 1890:25). Despite economic uncertainty, Laxman did not renew his contract as pastor in Siberia after 1768.
Scientific education and contacts
At the university in Turku (Åbo), Laxman attended lectures by Pehr Gadd, Pehr Kalm and Johan Leche. He entered in correspondence with scholars Peter Jonas Bergius, Carl Niclas Hellenius, and Carl Fredrik Mennander and gained scientific status especially through his correspondence with Carl von Linné. (Väre 2012:117).
Laxman’s contact network in Sweden influenced and initiated scientific contacts between Sweden and Japan in the 18th century as he corresponded with Linné’s pupil Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828), the author of Flora Japonica (1784). Laxman himself became corresponding member of Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (Kungliga vetenskapsakademin) in 1761 and a full member in 1769.
Rhubarb and its medicinal qualities were of great interest for Swedish botanists.
18th-century botanical illustration of Rheum rhubarbum. Plantarum indigenarum et exoticarum icones ad vivum coloratae, oder, Sammlung nach der Natur gemalter Abbildungen inn- und ausländlischer Pflanzen, für Liebhaber und Beflissene der Botanik, Lukas Hochenleitter und Kompagnie. 1779.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
After his return from Siberia, Laxman renewed his contact with cabinet minister Adam Vasilyevich Olsufiev (1721-1784) who was one of the chief sponsors and patrons of Laxman in Russia.
Laxman at the Imperial Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg
Russian Academy Sciences attempted to hire prominent Western European scholars – of special interest were the Swedes (including Finns at that time). In Saint Petersburg, Linné was held in high esteem and therefore his pupils – among them Pehr Kalm – were targets for recruiting efforts. Pehr Kalm especially due to his famous expedition to Russia and North America. The Academy made a generous offer to Kalm for the post of the professor of botany. After the death of the famous Russian academician Mikhail Lomonosov in 1765, the Academy made two unsuccessful attempts to recruit Pehr Adrian Gadd, who already had an established scientific reputation. After these attempts, Erik Laxman was appointed in 1770 (Lagus 1890:86-87, Niemelä 1998:53).
As a professor at the Academy of Sciences, Laxman did not publish extensive works, but rather wrote smaller commentaries. Instead, he was keen to develop the scientific collections in Saint Petersburg. Laxman was not a theoretician but rather a pragmatic explorer and inventor.
Laxman was nominated a member of the Imperial Russian Academy of Sciences in 1770. There Laxman received an annual salary of 600 rubles, free accommodation and was made responsible for the chemical laboratory of the Academy as professor of chemistry and economics (Lagus 1890:76). At the age of 33 Laxman achieved a position comparable to Pehr Kalm in the Royal Academy of Turku in Finland. Laxman’s patron at the Academy was Count Vladimir Grigorievich Orlov (1743–1831), the president of the Academy. At the academy, Laxman worked in co-operation with famous scholars such as Peter Simon Pallas who also referred to Laxman in his Flora Rossica (1784-1788)(Väre 2012:119).
Work and the conditions at the Russian Academy of Sciences did not meet Laxman’s expectations and he left the Academy in 1880. Based on his work in mineralogy Laxman was nominated the superintendent of mines in Siberia, based in Nerchinsk. Nerchinsk was located 700 km east of Lake Baikal. Due to some undiplomatic moves, rivals accused Laxman of fraud. Already a year after taking up the post, Laxman was called to Saint Petersburg to clarify the accounts of the mines and was dismissed from his post. He had to take the post of police officer (nachalnik) in a village near Nerchinsk in Siberia. With the help of friends, Laxman was, after two years, cleared from charges made against him.
After winning the struggle to clear his reputation, Laxman was named the “mineralogical explorer of the Imperial Cabinet” based in Irkutsk. This guaranteed a good annual income and opportunity to again travel in Siberia (Väre 2012:121). This was a dream job for Erik Laxman who stayed the rest of his life based in Irkutsk receiving a generous salary comparable to the academicians’ salaries.
Laxman’s contributions to science
Erik Laxman’s most recognized contribution to science was his collaboration with Carl Erik Linnaeus (Linné) in collecting plants of Siberia at the time Linné was devising his Systema naturae – taxonomy of species. He sent plant specimens, seed and samples to Linné and his colleagues. Apart from those sent to Linné, most of the surviving specimens collected by Laxman are currently deposited at the Botanical Museum of Helsinki University and the Botanical Institute collection of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Laxman’s pioneering work in botany was his appendix ad floram ingricam (1764) – collaborative work initiated by Stepan Petrovich Krashennikov (1711-1755) and published by Davide de Gorter (1717-1783) in 1761. Erik Laxman’s appendix complemented the work with 24 species (Laxman 1764). This was the first scientific publication of Erik Laxman.
In 1764, on his way to Barnaul, while staying in Moscow, Laxman ventured to write a letter to Linné inquiring about possible cooperation in the collection of Siberian plants. Linné’s enthusiastic reply letter reached Laxman in Barnaul. Linné requested Laxman to send specimens of Actaea (FI konnanmarjat), Hyoscyamus (FI hullukaalit), Hypecoum (FI liuskiot), Fumaria (FI emäkit), Trollius asiaticus (FI aasiankullero) and others. This marked the beginning of cooperation that extended to altogether 24 letters sent by Laxman, mostly written in Swedish. After failed experiments with cultivation of North American plants received from Pehr Kalm, Linné requested Laxman to send seeds of Siberian plants with the expectation that they would survive in Sweden as well. (Hintikka 1938b). Laxman’s letters to Linné have survived in Linné’s archives, but unfortunately letters Linné sent to Laxman have been destroyed.
In 1766 Laxman wrote from Irkutsk a letter to P.J. Bergius (1730-1790), Swedish botanist, who in turn urged Laxman to seek for seeds of rhubarb which was used as a medical plant, but was obtained with difficulty only from China. Laxman found rhubarb growing in Siberia and sent seeds to Bergius. However, there was a disappointment, because the Siberian plant was mistaken for the Chinese variety but did not correspond to it in terms of quality and characteristics (Lagus 1890:35-37).
|Date of publication
|Current names and description
|Sinyaya Sopka mountaine, Lesser Altay
|Veronica pinnata L. (1767)
|Sibiraea laevigata (L.) Maxim (Spiraea laevigata L. 1771
|Lesser Altay, Sinyaya Sopka
|Dracosephalum grandiflorum L. (1753) Dragonhead (EN)
Змееголовник крупноцветковый (RU)
|Caragana spinosa (L.) DC. Robinia Spinos Laxm. (1771)
|Lespedeza daurica (Laxm.) Schindl.
Bush clover (EN)
|China (greenhouses in St. Petersburg)
|Koelreuteria paniculata Laxm.
Pride of India (EN)
|Gentiana grandiflora Laxm.
|Chamaerhodos altaica (Laxm.) Bunge Chamaerhodos erecta
|Lesser Altay, Sinyaya Sopka
|Tulipa uniflora (L.) Bess. ex Baker (Ornithogalum uniflorum Laxm. 1767)
|Gagea serotina (L) Ker Gawl. Lloydia serotina (L.) 1753 Rchb.(Bulbocodium serotinum L. 1753)
|Knorringia sibirica Laxm. Tzvelev
|Ranunculus altaicus Laxm.
|Parnassia laxmannii Pall. ex Schultes
For comprehensive information for species, use the link to Wikispecies provided in the table.
Laxman drew good quality illustrations of these species but was slow to publish the new species found. Therefore, Linné in many instances published the species discovered by Laxman.
|The original botanical illustrations drawn by Erik Laxman.
During his later years as mineralogist, Laxman did not have so much time to collect plant specimens, but continued to send seed and samples to P.J. Bergius to Stockholm, P.A. Gadd to Turku (Åbo), P.S. Pallas and the Saint Petersburg botanical garden. As a result of this activity six new species were named according to the finder (Heiska &al 2005:167-168).
Practical applications of botanical work
The driver and integral part of botanical work has from the ancient times been the search for potential use of plants as food or medicine. Therefore, a substantial part of Laxman’s study was the experimentation with different species and varieties as potential utility plants.
Therefore, Laxman is credited with the introduction of the cultivation of potato in Siberia as part of his work at the Saint Petersburg Economic Society. Laxman is known for introducing the cultivation of rhubarb in Finland. (Heiska &al 2005:164).
Laxman published a study (Laxman 1771) of the exploitation of dwarf Russian almond (Prunus tenella) for pressing oil. With regard to trees, Laxman studied seed cultivation in Northern Russia for birch, maple, linden, alder, oak, ash, pine and spruce and based on his observations wrote a treatise on the possibility of forestation of Siberian steppes (Laxman 1769)
Chemist and mineralogist
Erik Laxman was keenly interested in mineralogy and chemistry especially from the utilitarian point of view. His inventions resulted in successful exploitation of minerals and improvements in glass-making technology. According to Lagus, Laxman learned chemistry by studying the works of Johan Gottschalk Wallerius (1709-1785), the founder of agricultural chemistry. (Lagus 1890:30).
“In Barnaul, Laxman met local pharmacist Mr. Brandt, who taught him elementary principles of chemical synthesis. From the salt lakes in northwestern Siberia, Laxman separated magnesium sulfate from sodium chloride by using the large differences in solubility at low Siberian winter temperatures. The magnesium sulfate was then purified and sold as a digestive aid to the burgesses in St. Petersburg. Through this process, Laxman became acquainted with several scientists and began a fruitful correspondence” Other chemical experimentation concerned the separation of silver from the ore and method for purifying sodium chloride (natriumkloridi, ruokasuola.) (Karlsson & al. 2010).
Erik Laxman was keenly interested in glass manufacture and pioneered new methodologies. The importance of the field is reflected in the extensive illustrations of glass-making in “Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers” published by Denis Diderot in France 1751-1772.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Laxman established a glass factory near Irkutsk employing the methods he had developed for glass production. His partner in this venture was Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, the famous colonizer of Russia America, whose legacy lives in the name of Baranof Island on the coast of Alaska. Laxman’s chemical experimentation and work with glass production led him to a discovery in glass-making. He devised and pioneered a method of making glass using sodium sulfate instead of potassium carbonate. Potassium carbonate was produced by consuming large quantities from wood. This had led to widespread deforestation near glass factories. Laxman started experimenting with sodium sulfate being converted into sodium carbonate. Sodium sulfate was more readily available as a mineral. In his own glass factory, Laxman successfully demonstrated the new method. (Hintikka 1938a:6). Not being a theoretician, Laxman did not systematically develop his innovations but his calculations and advances in the field were nonetheless astounding.
As the Imperial mineralogist responsible for exploration and collecting minerals based in Irkutsk, Laxman discovered large malachite deposits South-West of Lake Baikal and precious stones along the tributaries of Lena river. (Hintikka 1938b:4)
The minerals described by Laxman were tremolite and baikalite. Laxman discovered extensive deposits of Lazurite (lapis lazuli) which were excavated by order of Catherine II and used for the decoration of the famous lapis lazuli room in the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg.
Lazurite table from the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo.
Image: Andrey Korzun 2008. Wikimedia Commons.
During his voayage to Olyokminsk in Yakutia, Laxman discovered viluite and grossular (Heiska &al 2006:164).
Laxman also pioneered research in paleontology describing his finds of fossils in Siberia.
Drawing of fossile find from 1794.
Explorer of the Russian Empire and Siberia
Erik Laxman was always ready to launch a new expedition and to travel to unknown regions. Until the end of his life, he was planning new expeditions – the most ambitious of all the one to Far East and Japan that did not materialize for Laxman himself.
From Barnaul Laxman visited the upper reaches of River Ob and visited Tomsk and Ust-Kamennogorsk (in present day Kazahstan). In the early years in Siberia (1766-1767) he ventured also to Kyakhta and present-day Mongolian border area of Russia. In 1767 tireless Laxman traveled to Lesser Altai mountains to make observations and collect specimens. This was the first scientific exploration of the Altai. Laxman collected in addition to plant specimens and insect species. He sent from Selenginsk notes of Tibetan language carvings to Müller. For these achievements Laxman earned his early renown in Germany. (Lagus 1890:39, Väre 2012:118.)
Upon his return from Siberia to Saint Peterburg in 1770, Erik Laxman travelled to Olonets and probably also visited his home town Savonlinna. The same year here travelled with the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences count Orlov to Bessarabia and Moldova. (Laxman 1773), continuing collection of insects and minerals and exploring hot springs in Sarepta (Volgograd). In 1779 Laxman again visited Northwest Russia and Lake Onega region with some interest in mining and published an account in 1782.
After his move to Irkutsk as the mineralogical explorer, Laxman was the first to document the existence of Finno-Ugric people living East of the Ural mountains. He documented hot springs in the Lake Baikal area in Ust Turka (Lagus 1890:57), discovered diamonds in the River Vilyuy area and valuable lazurite deposits (semi-precious stone). This mineral was later described in 1857 by the Finnish mineralogist Nils Gustaf Nordenskiöld (member of the Mining Board in Finland, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. N.G. Nordenskiöld was the father of the discoverer of the Northeast Passage, A.E. Nordenskiöd. (Wikipedia s.a.)
Laxman was among the first to collect ethnographic materials related to the religion of the Siberian peoples (Erik Laxman 1769). In 1788 Laxman extended his exploration to mountains in Nerchinsk area finding stalactite caves in Nizhneudinsk together with salty springs and oil shale deposits along River Angara. He also travelled along the Lena river to Olyokminsk (Heiska &al 2005:164).
Other contributions to science
Through his wide interests, empirical observation, exploration and experimentation Erik Laxman became a pioneering figure in many fields of science and research in addition to botany and mineralogy On many instances he was the first to study the topic in the Russian science but also contributed to scientific inquiry as a corresponding member of the international community.
Upon his return to Saint Petersburg in 1768 Laxman together with Falck were invited members of the newly founded Free Economic Society (Free Economic Society for the Encouragement of Agriculture and Husbandry, Вольное экономическое общество), which studied regional economical and agricultural questions. The Economic Society was among the first economics societies in the world, Russia’s first learned society and later regarded as a bulwark of liberalism in Russia. The society sent Laxman to explore conditions in Olonets (Aunus). In his report of the voyage to the society, Laxman reported about economic conditions, agriculture and forestry, making proposals for improvements. (Hintikka 1938a:6, Heiska &al 2006:163).
Based on his research activity and publications, Laxman was nominated professor at the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg. As professor, Laxman traveled extensively, accumulating his knowledge of geographical conditions in the Volga basin in Russia, areas newly conquered by Russia (in the 18th century) in Ukraine and Bessarabia (present day Moldova). He also ventured to an expedition to the sources of Volga and Valdai heights, and a second expedition to Olonets, Kola Lapland.
Laxman had an understanding of ecological questions and made observations of changes in nature. He had observed drift sand and dunes and made proposals for containing the dunes cwith the help of sand-binding plants. (Lagus 1890:40, Heiska &al 2006:163). He published his findings with the Economic Society with the title Neue Mittel zur Befestigung des Flugsandes (Laxman 1768).
By far the greatest visions in economic geography Laxman developed was the gathering of information about Japan and envisioning the opening of trade relations with the closed realm of Japan. Laxman cultivated a relationship with Japanese castaway sailors in Siberia gathering information and promoting and sponsoring expeditions to Japan. The Russian Empire had extended its influence in the Pacific Ocean controlling Kamchatka, the Aleutian Islands. Laxman had a very detailed map of Japan produced by Daikokuya Kodayu in Irkutsk and sent it to Saint Petersburg in 1790 (Heiska &al 2006:165). The expedition to return Daikokuya Kodayu and his crew to Japan was accomplished by Laxman’s son Adam.
Laxman’s ambitions grew and he started planning a second expedition to Japan but his death interrupted the plans.
Erik Laxman’s zeal for exploration was not limited to plants. He also made significant contributions in the field of zoology. In this field he was first to publish entomological study in Russia. Animal species he discovered included Siberian zokor (Myospalax myospalax) (Laxman 1771a) and Eurasian pygmy shrew (Sorex minutus). He also found and collected fossils.
Drawing of the Siberian zokor (Myospalax myospalax by Erik Laxman.
In Altay Erik Laxman encountered Siberian chipmunk (Tamia sibiricus) and gave it its scientific name in 1769.
Image: Richardfabi 2003. Wikimedia Commons.
In the field of ornithology, Laxman send for the Royal Swedish Academy a description of the Hirundo daurica – the red-rumped swallow (modern name: Cecropis daurica Laxman, 1769. Lagus 1890:63, Heiska &al 2006:163).
Carl von Linné was very interested in receiving information about Siberian insects and encouraged Erik Laxman to collect species. In his first letter he suggested Laxman to collect Siberian insects. Laxman started with collection of insect species with subsequent publication of results in Saint Petersburg. This was the first treatise on insects in Russia, thus making Erik Laxman the pioneer of entomology in Russia. (Laxman 1770, Hintikka 1938b).
For Linné Systema naturae 1767 Laxman provided Gryllus sibiricus (now Gomphocerus sibiricus), a grasshopper as well as Conops petiolata (now Physocephala rufipes) a new fly species. The collections that he accumulated over the years to be sent to Saint Petersburg contained 368 specimens, of which he described 10 species in his treatise of the insects of Siberia (Lagus 1890:29).
Entomological drawings of Erik Laxman from the year 1770.
Meteorologist and physicist
In the 18th-century, physics and the measurement and recording of the physical conditions took giant leaps forward. Staying in Siberia, Laxman experienced first hand the freezing of mercury (Hg, melting point -38,9° C) in low temperatures – a phenomenon discussed in report but rarely accessible to European scholars. Laxman’s contributions were recognized in the comtemporary treatise of the subject by Charles Blagden at the Royal Society (Blagden 1783)
In Barnaul, Laxman started observations of natural phenomena including meteorological and hydrological measurements of temperature, wind direction, water level in Ob. Assisted by his involvement with glass-making, Laxman experimented with the making of thermometers and barometers for his own use as well as to be given out for acquaintances in Siberia in order to encourage them to make measurements. (Hintikka 1938a:6, Lagus 1890:26).
In Laxman’s times temparature was measured in e.g. France and Russia on Réaumur scale. It is not known, whether any thermometers produced by Laxman survive. Featured is an old Réaumur scale thermometer in the museum of Simferopol.
Image: Andrew Butko. Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed.
Series of meteorological observations were published already in 1769 in a magazine in Hannover and in Sibirische Briefe (August Ludvig Schlözer. Göttingen und Gotha, Laxman 1769). Laxman provided information that without him would not have been available. Laxman had recruited a pharmacist in Nerchinsk and a doctor in Irkutsk to collaborate in order to collect a wealth of meteorological data covering a wide area in Siberia (Lagus 1890:27). With his series of published meteorological observations Laxman became a pioneer of meteorology.
Ethnographer and archeologist
During his travels near the Chinese border, Laxman observed and reported the Orkhon inscription in Orkhon valley in Mongolia written in the old Turkic alphabet. Through his observations the Finno-Ugrian Society was able to document and transcribe the inscriptions later in the 1880s (Hintikka 1938b).
Letters from Laxman to archbishop of Uppsala, Carl Fredrik Mennander revealed that Laxman during his travels made observations concerning finno-ugric peoples in Russia. Laxman reacted to the initiative of the Finnish scholar Henrik Gabriel Porthan (1739-1804) who started the study of the origins of Finnish people and had suggested the study of Finnic peoples in Russia. In his extensive account Laxman lists the people, their areas of habitation and comments on similarities in language, construction methods and habits between these peoples. He emphasizes the importance of instigating research. (Hintikka 1938b:4). Porthan never traveled to Russia, but Laxman had thus promoted the idea and prepared ground for Mathias Alexander Castrén (1813-1852) who pioneered research in the 1840s. As in the case of mineralogy and archeology, Laxman greatly influenced later Finnish research also in the field of linguistics and ethnography.
Author: Pellervo Kokkonen