Georg Wilhelm Steller

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Haliaeetus pelagicus -San Diego Zoo -aviary-8d.jpg Stellers jay - natures pics.jpg
Stellersdrake2.jpg Steller sea lion bull.jpg

No portrait is known of Georg Steller,
but numerous animals are named after him.
Giant sea eagle ( Steller's Sea Eagle ),
diademed jay ( Cyanocitta stelleri )
Black duck ( Polysticta stelleri ),
Steller's sea lion
Steller's manatee (extinct)

Georg Wilhelm Steller (actually Georg Wilhelm Stöller * 10. March 1709 in Windheim , free city , † November 12 . Jul / 23. November  1746 greg. In Tyumen , Russian Empire ) was a German doctor , anthropologist and naturalist . He was a participant in the Second Kamchatka Expedition led by the Danish captain Vitus Bering . Its official botanical author abbreviation is " Steller ".


Windsheim, illustration from the 17th century
Birthplace of Georg Wilhelm Steller in Bad Windsheim

Georg Wilhelm Steller was the fourth child of Johann Jakob Stöhler (after 1715 Stöller) (1664–1743), who came from Nuremberg and had been cantor of the grammar school and organist of the town church in Windsheim since 1702 , and his wife Loysa Susanna. The son grew up in simple circumstances. After attending the Windsheimer Gymnasium, he first studied theology in the reformed Wittenberg with a scholarship from his hometown . He gave up unpopular theology studies when his scholarship was canceled after a major fire in his hometown. The focus of his studies went more and more in the direction of medicine and natural sciences. Years of study in Leipzig , Jena and Halle followed , where he first came into contact with Russian studies. In Halle he attended botany lectures with the famous researcher Friedrich Hoffmann , who discovered the healing springs of Bad Lauchstädt and is known to this day for his Hoffmann's drops . Later he was also allowed to hold some lectures in botany as a private lecturer. In 1734 he passed his exam as a doctor. Because he saw no prospect of an academic career in Prussia, he went to Russia. Since he had little financial means to get to Saint Petersburg , Steller joined the Russian army as a wound surgeon. A Russian army was stationed in Gdansk due to the War of the Polish Succession . From here Steller came to Saint Petersburg on a hospital ship. On this crossing he changed his original family name Stöller to Steller, as this was better pronounced for the Russians.

Stellerbogen on the Bering Island

Almost penniless, he reached the Russian capital in 1734. In the Botanical Garden of Saint Petersburg he met the Orthodox Archbishop Feofan Prokopovich , who became his patron and introduced him to the learned circles of the city. In 1737 he was appointed Adjunct of the Natural Sciences of the Petersburg Academy of Sciences . In the same year he was appointed a member of the Great Nordic Expedition and sent to Kamchatka . He was subordinate to the famous Professor Johann Georg Gmelin . Shortly before his departure from Saint Petersburg, he married the widow of the German Siberia researcher Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt Brigitte Helene, nee. Böchler († June 26, 1761 in Saint Petersburg). This marriage did not last very long, already on the way to Siberia - in Moscow - the couple separated again. After an arduous journey and ongoing field studies in a variety of subjects (including botany , zoology , geology and, last but not least, ethnography ) he reached his goal in early October 1740 and immediately continued his field research there, together with the Russian student Stepan Petrovich Krasheninnikov , who was already has been there since 1737. In February 1741 he received a letter from Bering requesting him to accompany him, Bering, on the planned voyage to America in place of the resigned expedition doctor. After some hesitation, he finally agreed.

On June 15, 1741, the expedition with the two ships St. Peter (with Bering and Steller) and St. Paul left the Avatscha Bay . In the course of this voyage the St. Peter (after several navigational problems) reached Alaska (land in sight on July 25, 1741). The relationship between Steller and Bering was always problematic. A scandal broke out when, on July 30, 1741, Bering initially refused Steller to go ashore on the so-called St. Elias Island (today: Kayak Island ) to research the conditions. Vitus Bering only wanted to take in fresh water there. It was only when Steller swore that he would ensure that Bering and his officers would have to justify their refusal to a higher authority after their return that Bering relented. He was the first European naturalist to set foot on Alaska. Steller's mocking remark that they probably came here "to bring American water to Asia" has been handed down. Still, Steller only had 10 hours to explore. After all, this was enough to document around 160 plant species. He also discovered a depot of the Aleutians who lived there and removed a number of everyday objects and jewelry for his ethnological collection. Later he arranged for iron cookware, knives and similar objects to be brought into the depot. However, since the locals hid deep in the forest for fear of the strangers, he was unable to establish contact with them.

On the stormy return voyage, the St. Peter finally stranded on November 16, 1741 on what was later to be known as the Bering Island , where the expedition commander Vitus Bering finally died on December 19, 1741. During the nine-month struggle for survival that followed, Steller proved to be a master of improvised survival techniques. He and the Swedish lieutenant Waxell were the leaders who organized a reasonably orderly camp life. From the remains of the St. Peter it was finally possible to build a boat with which the survivors finally reached Peter and Paul's port in Kamchatka ( Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky ) on September 6, 1742 .

Steller's manatee

In addition to all the hardships and dangers that the struggle for survival on the Bering Island brought with it, Steller still knew how to continue his natural history observations. During this time he wrote his description of the so-called Steller manatee ( Hydrodamalis gigas , formerly: Rhytina stelleri or Rhytina borealis ), through which he came to some fame. He was the first and only scientist who ever saw a live Steller manatee. After that, they mainly saw fur hunters, who soon eradicated this species.

After his happy return, he spent another three years in Kamchatka to continue his scientific and ethnological research. His ethnological research during his time on Kamchatka was particularly focused on the Itelmen . On August 14, 1744, he left Kamchatka with a collection packed in 16 boxes to return to Petersburg. While he was still on his way home, he was charged in Irkutsk in the spring of 1745 . He was accused of inciting the peoples of Eastern Siberia against Russian rule and even distributing weapons among them. However, he was eventually acquitted for lack of evidence. At Christmas 1745 he moved on, right into the Siberian winter. Already marked by the previous exertions, he soon fell seriously ill. With the last of his strength he escaped to Tyumen . There he died on November 23, 1746.

A memorial stone erected in Tyumen on September 14, 2009 commemorates his work.


Memorial plaque on the house at Stellergasse 2 in Bad Windsheim
Memorial plaque on the house at Schloßstraße 3, in Lutherstadt Wittenberg
A memorial to Steller erected in 2009 in a park by the river in Tyumen , Siberia , where he had died of a fever more than 260 years earlier at the age of 37.

More than his numerous scientific writings, which he wrote during the Great Nordic Expedition and some of which have been preserved, it is above all his report of the Bering Alaska voyage and its dramatic end that has carried his name on to this day. There were other nautical records of this voyage as well. But these strongly emphasized the purely technical aspects of the ride. Steller provided a more comprehensive picture of the circumstances and events by including, in addition to the natural history descriptions, moods and judgments on events that did not reduce the purely factual content of his report, but rather contributed to the creation of a "rounded" overall picture.

The Georg-Wilhelm-Steller-Gymnasium (Bad Windsheim) and the Steller Secondary School Anchorage are named after him. Since 2008 a wooden figure by the artist Christian Rösner depicting Steller and the Steller manatee named after him has graced a square in the town of Bad Windsheim in Franconia . The plant genera Stellera L. and Restella Pobed are also named after Steller . and Stelleropsis Pobed. from the family of Thymelaeaceae (Thymelaeaceae) and Rellesta Turcz. from the gentian family (Gentianaceae) and the mineral stellerite .


  • GW Steller: Journey from Kamchatka to America with the Commander-Captain Bering. Edited by PS Pallas ( online ). Saint Petersburg 1793.
  • Georg Wilhelm Steller: From Siberia to America. The discovery of Alaska with Captain Bering. Edited by Volker Mathies. Stuttgart: Thienemann 1986. ISBN 3-522-61170-5
  • Georg Wilhelm Steller: Description of the country Kamchatka. Yakutsk 1737.
    • 1753 new edition, Halle.
    • 1793 reprint, St. Petersburg.
    • 1996 New edition, Frankfurt: Fleischer 1774 (digitally available on the Internet Archive ).
    • 1996 New edition of the edition from 1774, ed. by Erich Kasten and Michael Dürr. Bonn: Holos Verlag.
    • 2009 Reprint of the 1774 edition. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing.
    • 2013 new edition of the edition of 1774, ed. by Erich Kasten and Michael Dürr. Fürstenberg / Havel: Publishing house of the Siberian Cultural Foundation ( online ). ISBN 978-3-942883-86-3
  • Wieland Hintzsche (Ed.): Sources on the history of Siberia and Alaska from Russian archives.
    • Vol. I. Georg Wilhelm Steller - Letters and Documents 1740. Arranged by Wieland Hintzsche, Thomas Nickol and Olga V. Novochatko. Halle 2000. ISBN 3-930195-61-5
    • Vol. II. Georg Wilhelm Steller, Stepan Kraseninnikov, Johann Eberhard Fischer: Travel diaries 1735 to 1743. Edited by Wieland Hintzsche with the collaboration of Thomas Nickol, Olga V. Novochatko and Dietmar Schulze. Halle 2000. ISBN 3-930195-64-X
    • Vol. III. Georg Wilhelm Steller - Letters and Documents 1739. Arranged by Wieland Hintzsche with the collaboration of Thomas Nickol, Olga V. Novochatko and Dietmar Schulze. Halle 2001. ISBN 3-930195-67-4


  • A Franconian discovers Alaska. The adventurous life of Georg Wilhelm Steller ; by Peter Prestel and Rudolf Sporrer ( Bavarian television ; first broadcast: November 30, 2009)


  • Ingrid Brunner: The first European in Alaska. In: Süddeutsche Zeitung . November 8, 2016, p. R16 ( online ).
  • Andreas W. Daum: German Naturalists in the Pacific around 1800. Entanglement, Autonomy, and a Transnational Culture of Expertise . In: Hartmut Berghoff, Frank Biess, Ulrike Strasser (eds.): Explorations and Entanglements: Germans in Pacific Worlds from the Early Modern Period to World War I. Berghahn Books, New York 2019, pp. 79-102 (English).
  • Orcutt W. Frost: From Germany via Russia and Siberia to North America: The natural scientist Georg Wilhelm Steller. In: Erich Donnert (ed.): Europe in the early modern times. Festschrift for Günter Mühlpfordt. Vol. 2: Early Modern. Böhlau, Weimar 1997, pp. 515-538.
  • Frank A. Golder: Bering's voyages. An account of the efforts of the Russians to determine the relation of Asia and America. 2 volumes. American Geographical Society, New York 1922/1925.
  • Wieland Hintzsche, Thomas Nickol (ed.): The Great Nordic Expedition. Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709–1746). A Lutheran explores Siberia and Alaska. Exhibition by the Francke Foundations in Halle from May 12, 1996 to January 31, 1997. Perthes, Gotha 1996, ISBN 3-623-00300-X
  • Hans Hünefeld: Georg Wilhelm Steller. In: Fränkische Lebensbilder (= New series of résumés from Franconia. Vol. 7). Degener, Neustadt / Aisch 1977, ISBN 3-7686-9020-2 , pp. 209-221.
  • Erich Kasten: "Steller and the Itelmenen." In: Georg Wilhelm Steller Description of the land of Kamchatka. [Repr. the output v. 1774]. Edited by Erich Kasten and Michael Dürr. Fürstenberg / Havel: Kulturstiftung Sibirien 2013, pp. 245–267 ( online ).
  • Marcus Köhler: Description of peoples. The ethnographic method of Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709–1746) in the context of the development of the “Russian” ėtnografija. Publishing house Dr. Müller, Saarbrücken 2008, ISBN 3-639-02427-3
  • WG Sebald : According to nature. Elementary poem. S. Fischer, Frankfurt 1995, ISBN 3-596-12055-1
  • Ludwig StiedaSteller, Georg Wilhelm . In: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB). Volume 36, Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig 1893, pp. 33-36.
  • Herbert Wotte : America was in the blue distance. Travels and adventures of the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller. Brockhaus, Leipzig 1974.

Web links

Wikisource: Georg Wilhelm Steller  - Sources and full texts
Commons : Georg Wilhelm Steller  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. In Steller's diary the sighting of land is dated Wednesday, July 15th ( old style ). Its dating does not take into account the crossing of the date line . In North America it was still Tuesday.
  2. ^ Steller memorial stone in Tyumen ' News archive of the International Georg Wilhelm Steller Society. V., accessed on December 23, 2018.
  3. Lotte Burkhardt: Directory of eponymous plant names - Extended Edition. Part I and II. Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin , Freie Universität Berlin , Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3-946292-26-5 doi: 10.3372 / epolist2018 .
  4. stellerite . In: John W. Anthony, Richard A. Bideaux, Kenneth W. Bladh, Monte C. Nichols (Eds.): Handbook of Mineralogy, Mineralogical Society of America . 2001 (English, [PDF; 79  kB ; accessed on October 26, 2019]).