S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science




Forster, Mr Johann Reinhold (zoology, botany)

Born: 22 October 1729, Dirschau (now Tczew), Poland.
Died: 9 December 1798, Halle, Germany.

Johann Reinhold Forster, philologist, teacher and naturalist, grew up in what was then the Kingdom of Prussia, now part of Poland. He studied ancient and modern languages at Berlin, and from 1748 to 1751 continued his studies in oriental and other languages and theoloy at the University of Halle. From 1753 he worked as a minister of the Lutheran Church in and near Danzig (now Gdansk) until 1765. However, his main interest was in natural history and in 1765 he undertook a survey of the lower Volga region for the Russian government. The next year he went to England, where he obtained a post as teacher in natural history and languages, first at a nonconformist school in Warrington, Lancashire, and from 1768 at the church school in the same town. In 1770 he moved to London and became known in scientific circles through several zoological publications, for example A catalogue of the animals of North America (London, 1771) and two papers on fishes and birds from Hudson Bay (1772, 1773). He also wrote An introduction to mineralogy... (London, 1768). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1772 and was awarded the degree Doctor of Civil Law (DCL) by the University of Oxford in 1775.

In June 1772 Forster was appointed naturalist to the second expedition led by Captain James Cook into the Pacific Ocean, and arranged for his eldest son, J.G.A. (George) Forster*, to accompany him as assistant and natural history draughtsman. 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 his son made drawings. During their stay they persuaded Anders Sparmann*, who was on a visit to the Cape, to accompany them on their voyage as an assistant. On the return journey the expedition reached the Cape on 21 March 1775 and stayed for five weeks. Forster collected insects and plants near Cape Town, and purchased some live animals to take back to Europe - a springbuck, suricate, two eagles, and some small birds.

He returned to England with numerous drawings, notes and specimens, representing much zoological knowledge that was new to Europe. However, the British Admiralty refused him permission to publish his results privately. The resulting dispute, in combination with Forsters,s other feuds and debts, led to the scattering of his manuscripts and papers all over the world. Nonetheless, with the assistance of his son, he pulished a work in Latin on the botanical results of the expedition, Characteres generum plantarum quas in itinere ad insulas maris Australis, collegerunt, discripserunt, delinearunt, annis 1772-1775 (1776), and Observations made during a voyage round the world in physical geography, natural history, and ethnic philosophy (London, 1778). The latter, a work of considerable scientific merit, was published again in modern times (Forster, 1996) with a substantial introduction and has been described as 'the most significant and substatial analysis of exotic cultures that emerged as a result of the Cook voyages' (p. xi).

Little of the zoological material pertaining to South Africa was published in Forster s lifetime. Soon after his return he prepared descriptions of all the animals seen during the voyage, but it was still in manuscript form at the time of his death. The work was eventually edited by M.H.K. Lichtenstein* and published as Descriptiones animalium... in 1844, but was then mainly of historical value. Nonetheless he introduced some new species in his publications, naming them according to the Linnean system. Thus his paper on the serval, "Natural history and description of the tyger-cat of the Cape of Good Hope", was read before the Royal Society in November 1780 and published in its Philosophical Transactions; and his description of the Springhaas, which he named Yerbua capensis (now Pedetes capensis) was published in the Handlingar of the Swedish Academy of Sciences (probably with Sparrman's help) in 1778. Fourteen of his edited contributions, eleven of them dealing with South African mammals, appeared in Supplement 6 of the Paris edition of the Histoire Naturelle by G.L.L. de Buffon in 1782. He also translated into German several accounts of travels, including W. Paterson's* Narrative and the accounts by F. Le Vaillant* of his first and second journeys, and sometimes added scientific names or natural history notes of his own to the texts.

Some of the mammals and birds that Forster collected at the Cape went to the British Museum (Natural History) in 1785. Others were sent to Sir Joseph Banks* at the Royal Society, but transferred with the rest of the society's collections to the British Museum in 1781.

After spending some years in poverty in England Forster was appointed professor of natural history and mineralogy at the University of Halle in 1779, where he remained to the end of his life. His publications during these years included Animals of Hudson's Bay (1882), History of the voyages and discoveries made in the north (1786), a work in Latin (1788) and in French (1799) on natural history, and many more. He was a distinguished naturalist, well read, had a large library, and maintained an extensive scientific correspondence, but was frequently in debt and involved in disputes as a result of his quick temper. Beaglehole (1961, p. xlii-xliii) has described him as dogmatic, humourless, suspicious, pretentious, contentious and demanding. He described 75 new genera of plants and the Australasian plant genus Forstera was named in his honour.


List of sources:

Bauer, A.M. Early German herpetological observations and explorations in southern Africa, with special reference to the Zoological Museum of Berlin. Bonner zoologische Beitraege, 2003, Vol. 52, pp. 193-214.

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 Reinhold. Australian dictionary of biography. Melbourne University Press, 1966.

Forster, J.R. Observations made during a voyage round the world. Edited by N. Thomas, H. Guest and M. Dettelbach, with a linguistic appendix by K.H. Rensch. Honolulu: University of Hawai Press, 1996.

Google scholar. http://scholar.google.co.za Publications by J.R. Forster.

Gunn, M. & Codd, L.E. Botanical exploration of southern Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1981.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

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

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

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


Compiled by: C. Plug


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