A short biography of Karl Ernst von Baer

(compiled by E.Tammiksaar)

Baer, Karl Ernst von (Karl Maksimovich), (17/28.02.1792 on the Estate of Piep (Piibe) Jerwen County (Järvamaa) - 16/28.11.1876, Dorpat (Tartu)) - a versatile Baltic-German naturalist. Born into the family of close relatives Magnus von Baer, the owner of the Estate of Piep and the Knight Commander of the Order of the Knights of Estonia, and his cousin Juliane von Baer. The first six years of his life B. spent on the Estate of Lassila (Lasila), which belonged to his uncle Karl Heinrich von Baer. 1807-10 he studied at the Cathedral School in Reval (Tallinn). 1810-14 B. was a student of medicine at the University of Dorpat, being especially attracted by the lectures of K. Burdach and G. F. Parrot. He graduated from the University as doctor of medicine. The thesis On the diseases endemic among the Estonians (De morbis inter esthonos endemicis. Dorpati, 1814. In Estonian 1976, the Library of "Looming", No 33) concerned the connections of the diseases with living conditions, nutrition, person's character, etc. In 1814-15 B. continued his studies in Vienna and 1815-16 in Würtzburg under the supervision of the anatomist Ignaz Döllinger (1770-1841), acquiring preparation skills and the interest in anatomy and developmental problems.

In 1816 Burdach invited B. to Königsberg (Kaliningrad). Having studied in Berlin for half a year, B. accepted in 1817 the post of prosector and Privatdozent at Königsberg University. In 1819 he married Auguste v. Medem (they had six children). In the same year he was elected extraordinary professor, and in 1821 full professor of zoology, and from 1826 also of anatomy. B. took active part in the social life in Prussia. From 1821 B. was the director of the Zoological Museum of Königsberg, which he himself had established. In Königsberg, alongside with anatomical research he began to study the embryonal development of animals, continuing the studies of the development of chick embryo started by Chr. Pander. B. also studied the development of fish, amphibians, reptilians, mammalia, discovered blastula - a very important stage of development, studied notochord, the development of foetal membranes and germ layers. In 1826 B. discovered the mammalian, including human ovum (De ovi mammalium et hominis genesi. Lipsiae, 1827). He proved that the embryonal development of animals proceeds from more general and simple formal characters to more differential in the further course of development, acquiring more complicated features typical of a subgroup and finally of an individual (so-called Baer laws). With his monograph "Über Entwickelungsgeschichte der Thiere" Bd. I-II. Königsberg, 1828, 1837 (the last volume compiled by L. Stieda, Königsberg, 1888), summing up his developmental studies, he laid the foundations of the science of comparative and descriptive embryology.. On the basis of his embryological studies B. presented a theory of types, different from that of G. de Cuvier. The fact that the importance of B's developmental studies was not at first properly evaluated by his contemporaries and the unsuccessful attempts to receive money for more thorough developmental studies on expeditions took B. to psychical crisis. In 1830 B. worked for a short time at the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences (correponding member from 1826, full academician from 1828, honorary foreign member from 1830) as director of the zoological museum. But in 1830 he returned to Königsberg.

In 1834, B. came back to the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences as full academician, first in zoology (1834-46) and then in comparative anatomy and physiology (1846-62), at the same time also acting as the head of the Anthropological Museum of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences. In the years 1835-62 B. was the director of the department of foreign literature of the Library of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences. In 1841-52 B. was a full professor of comparative anatomy and physiology at the Medico-Surgical Academy of St Petersburg. In 1862 B. resigned and was elected a honorary member of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences with voting rights. In 1862-67 B. was a Privy Councillor in the service of the Ministry of Public Education, trying to arrange educational work in Russia and inspecting the University of Kazan. In St Petersburg B. did not continue developmental research and took it up anew only in 1845-46, when he carried out two expeditions to the Mediterranean Sea.

The most important fields of research in which B. was active in St Petersburg were geography, ichthyology, ethnography, anthropology and craniology. With his expedition to Novaya Zemlya in 1837 he laid the basis of ecological research in Russia. B. studied the traces of glacial period in the southern coast of Finland and the Gulf of Finland in 1838-39 and in 1840, together with Middendorff, the Kola peninsula. B. was the first to draw the attention of scientists (1838) to the importance of the study of Siberian permafrost and on his initiative Middendorff was given the task to carry out respective investigations. B. and Helmersen founded the first serial natural scientific publication in Russia "Beiträge zur Kenntniss des Russischen Reiches" (1839-72, 26 volumes) with B. as the first editor of it. Baer had an immense role in the organisation and directing of natural scientific research in Russia. Following the instructions of B., inland regions of Russia were studied by L. Cienkowski, E. v. Hoffmann, Fr. Schmidt etc. Baer was the initiator of the foundation of the Russian Geographical Society, and a founder of it together with F.v. Wrangell and F. Lütke. He was the first head of its ethnographical department (1845-48). Alongside with theoretical problems B. also dealt with several practical problems. In the course of six expeditions carried out to Lake Peipus (Peipsi), the northern coast of the Baltic Sea, the Moonsund, Sweden and Finland in 1851-52 the condition of fisheries was studied. As a result the first fish protection law was enacted in Russia (1859). In the years of 1853-56 B. carried out investigations into the fisheries of the Kaspian Sea and the Volga River together with its tributaries (Kaspische Studien I-VIII, St Petersburg, 1855-59) and the Caucasus. B. is the pioneer of the research into fish biology in Russia, taking it to the world level. In his last expeditions he noticed the asymmetry of river banks (1856), which he considered to be a result of the rotation of the Earth (Baer-Babinet' Law). In 1862 B. studied the causes why the Sea of Azov was becoming shallow.

In 1858-62 B. worked intensively in the field of anthropology and craniology. B. and A. A. Retzius were the founders of comparative craniology and the introducers of the standard system of skull measurement. Jointly with R. Wagner B. organised the first anthropological conference in Göttingen in 1861 and was the chairman of it. He was the initiator of the foundation of the journal "Archiv für Anthropologie".

The last years of his life (1867-76) he spent in Dorpat (Tartu), where he mainly wrote articles on theoretical biology, criticising the evolutionary theory by Ch. Darwin. In 1869-1876, B. was president of the Naturalists' Society. B. has written over 400 scientific papers (over 1000 papers have been written about him). B. was a member of many (nearly 100) scientific institutions, among them the Austro-Hungarian Academy of Sciences (1865); and a honorary member of Tartu University; a foreign member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences (1861), Linne´ Society (1841), the Royal Society of London (1854); a corresponding member of the Belgian Royal Academy of Sciences (1858) and the Academy of Sciences of Paris (1858); a founder and the first president of the Russian Entomological Society (1860-61). Seven different geographical objects on different continents of the world bear the name of Baer. The Baer prize was awarded by the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1867-1906; the Baer prize established by the Estonian Academy of Sciences in 1976 has been awarded till today. The Estonian Naturalists' Society celebrates Baer's birthday by so-called Baer Days (1877-1926 and since 1972 till today) together with K.E.v. Baer Museum (founded on the initiative of Prof. E. Kumari in 1976) of the Institute of Zoology and Botany. Monuments in Tartu, Toome Hill (Opekushin, 1886); in the Zoological Museum of St. Petersburg and in the Library of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences; memorial stones at Piibe and Lasila, a street named after Baer in Tartu.

Baer's publications in English:

A complete Baer's bibliography has been published in Folia Baeriana vol. 4, with addendums in later volumes.

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