1902 Encyclopedia > Johann Georg Adam Forster

Johann Georg Adam Forster
German naturalist and scientific writer

JOHANN GEORG ADAM FORSTER, (1754-1794), an eminent German naturalist and writer on scientific sub-jects, was born at Nassenhuben, a small village near Dantzic, in November 1754. His father, Johann Reinhold Forster, a man of great scientific attainments but an intract-able temper, was at that time pastor of the place; the family are said to have been of Scotch extraction. In 1765 the elder Forster was commissioned by the empress Catherine to inspect the Russian colonies in the province of Saratov, which gave his son an opportunity of acquiring the Rus-sian language and the elements of a scientific education. After a few years the father quarrelled with the Russian Government, and suddenly embraced tbe resolution of pro-ceeding to England, where he obtained a professorship of natural history and the modern languages at the famous nonconformist academy at Warrington, His violent tem-per soon compelled him to resign this appointment, and for two years he and his son earned a precarious livelihood by translations in London,—a practical education, however, exceedingly useful to the younger Forster, who became a thorough master of English, and acquired many of the ideas which chiefly influenced his subsequent life. At length the turning point in his career came in the shape of an invita-tion for him and his father to accompany Captain Cook in his third voyage round the world. Such an expedition was admirably calculated to call forth Forster's peculiar powers. He attained no remarkable distinction as an original dis-coverer or investigator, but his insight into nature was accurate and penetrating; he conceived of her as a living whole, and reproduces her vitality in his animated pages. His account of Cook's voyage is almost the first example of the glowing yet faithful description of natural phenomena which has since made a knowledge of them the common property of the educated world,—a prelude to Humboldt, as Humboldt to Darwin and Wallace. The publication of this great work was, however, impeded for some time by differences with the Admiralty, during which Forster proceeded to the Continent to obtain an appointment for his father as professor at Cassel, and found to his surprise that it was conferred upon himself. The elder Forster, however, was soon provided for elsewhere, being appointed professor of natural history at Halle. At Cassel Forster formed an intimate friendship with the great anatomist Soemmerring, and about the same time made the acquaintance of Jacobi, who inspired him with a mystical spirit from which he subsequently emancipated himself. These were the days of secret societies, masonic lodges, and conventions of illuminati. Forster was for a long time deeply implicated in their proceedings, the purpose of which remains obscure. The want of books and scientific apparatus at Cassel induced him to resort frequently to Gottingen, where he betrothed himself to Therese Heyne, the daughter of the illustrious philologist, a clever and cultivated but heartless woman, who became the evil genius of his life. To be able to marry he accepted (1784) a professorship at the university of Wilna, where he found himself greatly misplaced. The penury and barbarism of Polish circumstances are graphi-cally described in his and his wife's letters of this period. After a few years' residence at Wilna he resigned his ap-pointment to participate in a scientific expedition projected by the Russian Government, and upon the relinquishment of this undertaking became librarian to the elector of Mayence. In 1790 he published his travels in the Nether-lands, with special reference to the art of the country—a work displaying the same power of exposition in aesthetic matters as he had previously shown in the description of the aspects of nature. This was his last work. The princi-pality of Mayence was now involved in the vortex of the French Revolution, and Forster unhappily suffered himself to be drawn into a position incompatible either with fidelity to his master the elector, or allegiance to his country. With his liberal sympathies and deficiency in political in-sight, he might be excused for welcoming the French as deliverers, but in promoting the actual incorporation of Mayence with France, he justly incurred the execration of patriotic Germans, notwithstanding the unquestionable purity of his intentions. Domestic sorrows were added to public calamities : Forster found himself not only deserted by his wife but deprived of his children. It is difficult to determine whether his apparent resignation should be ascribed to romantic self-sacrifice or to the apathy of an exhausted spirit. The situation was nearly the same as that of George Sand's Jacques, and the catastrophe not very dissimilar. Forster died suddenly and opportunely, January 11 94, in Paris, whither he had gone as deputy from May-ence in the worst days of the Reign of Terror. His per-sonal character was most amiable; he was high-minded, disinterested, ingenuous to a fault; but he was weak, im-pulsive, ill-starred throughout his life, and totally unequal to the difficult circumstances in which he ultimately found himself. As an author he stands very high ; he is almost the first and almost the best of that valuable class of writers who have made science and art familiar by representing them in their essential spirit, unencumbered with technical details. Schlegel remarks that no other German prose writer carries his reader so far, leaving him not merely enriched with positive knowledge but animated with the passion for further progress; that the books of no other such writer convey so lively an impression of having been composed outside the study in the free air: and that no other is animated by so constant a sense of the infinite per-fectibility of human nature.

Forster's writings have been frequently collected. The most important have been mentioned above, but there are numerous minor essays of great value and artistic completeness. His corre- spondence with his friend Soemmerring has been recently published by Hettner, and is full of interest. The biography by Moleschott is very agreeably written, but is rather a delineation of a typical naturalist than of the actual man, and its account of Forster's political career is vitiated by the writer's own deficiency in patriotic feeling. The other side of the question is presented with unnecessary asperity in Klein's George Forster in Mayence. There are excellent critical estimates by Schlegel and Gervinus, the latter prefixed to the seventh volume of Forster's writings. (E. G.)

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