S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science




Forster, Mr Johann Georg Adam (zoology)

Born: 27 November 1754, Nassenhuben, near Gdansk, Poland.
Died: 10 January 1794, Paris, France.

Johann Georg Adam Forster, usually known as George Forster, was a German traveller, writer and revolutionary and the eldest son of Johann Reinhold Forster* and his wife Justina. He was a brilliant child with a gift for languages and an interest in natural history, particularly botany, but was not physically robust. With little formal schooling he was mainly educated by his father, who became his constant companion. In 1865 he accompanied his father on a survey of the lower Volga region for the Russian government, and the next year the family moved to England where they resided in Warrington and London.

In June 1772 the elder Forster was appointed naturalist to the second expedition led by Captain James Cook into the Pacific Ocean, and arranged for George to accompany him as the expedition's natural history artist. This must have been a life-shaping experience for the young man, who was only seventeen at the start of the voyage. They travelled on the Resolution, with Francis Masson* as a passenger, arriving in Table Bay on 30 October 1772 for a stay of three weeks. Although they did not travel far into the interior they obtained a fair amount of zoological information, probably mainly from the Cape menagerie, and collected or bought various specimens. Working as a team, the elder Forster wrote the zoological descriptions while George made drawings. On the return journey the expedition reached the Cape on 21 March 1775 and stayed for five weeks.

George wrote a long account of the journey, A voyage round the world, in his Britannic Majesty's sloop, Resolution, commanded by Capt. James Cook, during the years 1772, 3, 4, and 5 (London, 1777, 2 vols). Based on his father's journal, it was an early example of a book on scientific travels. His father could not write the book, as he was forbidden to publish an account of the expedition before the official report was published. Although the book may have been ill-advised because it was not officially approved, and was strongly criticised by the astronomer W. Wales*, it demonstrated George's abilities as a writer. It included an account of the Forster's work at the Cape. A German edition was published in 1778-1780. George also assisted his father in writing a work in Latin on the botanical results of the expedition, Characteres generum plantarum quas in itinere ad insulas maris australis (1776). On his own he later wrote Florulae insularum Australianum prodromus (Goettingen, 1786) on the botany of Australia and Oceania; De Plantis Esculantis Insularum Oceani Australis (Halle,1786); Fasciculus plantarum Magellanicarum (Goettingen, 1787); and Plantae Atlanticae (Goettingen, 1787).

George made numerous drawings of plants and animals during the voyage, some of which are preserved in Germany in the Forschungsbibliothek in Gotha, the Schlossmuseum in Weimar and the Universitätsbibliothek in Jena. A substantial collection of drawings, many of them not completed, was sold to Sir Joseph Banks* and transferred to the British Museum (Natural History) in 1781. This collection included 301 drawings of plants and 271 zoological drawings, depicting mainly mammals (35), birds (140) and fishes (80), with some invertebrates and reptiles. All but a few can be attributed to George, and many depict specimens found at the Cape. The zoological drawings were published eventually in 1844, with his father's manuscripts, under the title Descriptiones Animalium.... George kept up a correspondence with Anders Sparrman*, who had accompanied them on the voyage, translated Sparrman's Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope from Swedish to English, and wrote a foreword for a German and a Dutch edition of the book.

George was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in January 1877 and was a member of the Royal Academy of Madrid. In 1779 he was appointed professor of natural history at the Collegium Carolinum (Officers' School) in Kassel, Germany. From there he went to the University of Vilna, Poland, in 1784 in the same capacity. The next year he married Therese Heyne. In October 1788 he was appointed librarian to the University of Mainz. During 1790 he travelled in Germany, Holland, Belgium and England in the company of Alexander von Humboldt, and published Ansichten vom Niederhein, von Brabant, Flanders, Holland, England und Frankreich im April, Mai und Junius 1790 (3 vols, 1791-1794). He also translated the works of several travellers in North America from English to German. Shortly after the French Revolution (1789-1791) he became involved in politics, edited a revolutionary newspaper, and was the leader of the Rhineland revolution of 1793, seeking French annexation of that region. As a result he was outlawed in Germany. In March 1793 he was deputised to the National Convention in Paris, but died of pneumonia soon afterwards. His elegant and thorough books and essays dealt with a variety of topics in travel, botany, geography, ethnography, literature, politics and philosophy.


List of sources:
Beaglehole, J.C. (Ed.) The journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery. Vol. 2: The voyage of the Resolution and Adventure, 1772-1775. Cambridge University Press, 1961.

Forster, Johann Georg Adam. Australian dictionary of biography. Melbourne University Press, 1966.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1868-1980.

Rookmaaker, L.C. The zoological exploration of southern Africa, 1650-1790. Rotterdam: Balkema, 1989.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979 (Vol. 1-4) and Cape Town: South African Library, 1991.

World who's who in science. Chicago: Marquis, 1968.


Compiled by: C. Plug


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