Friday, 2 March 2012

Dr. George Who? A Serendipitous Encounter

For years my favorite German cousin, Dr.(Medical) Elisabeth Hintzsche has been bugging me to help her support the scientific society she founded in Halle (Saale) for one Georg Wilhelm Stöller (1709-1746), a botanist involved in the second Russian exploration of the Kamchatka Peninsula,1737-44.)So when she gave me for my 85th birthday the latest book on him, Ann Arnold’s “Sea Cows, Shamans, and Scurvy: Alaska’s First Naturalist” (Farrar,Straus,Giroux, 2008), my interest perked up.(If it was good enough for FSG, it couldn’t be that bad.) So I sat me down to speed read to expedite a thank you note. Boy was I surprised!

To begin with, the explorations were generated by Peter the Great’s compulsion to make Russia a great European power. Before taking over the Empire, he had scoured all over Europe to find intellectual and cultural models to emulate. The second Kamchatka probe was led by no less a leader than Vitus Jonassen Bering, the Danish sea captain who would later be immortalized by the Straits between Kamchatka and Alaska.

The program was directed from the new capital of St.Petersburg (which the emperor had moved from Moscow to expedite both battles and expeditions through the river Neva and the Baltic Sea). Power was shared by the Military and the Academic, with maneuvering for power within and without so mean and unending that it would take a saint’s character to survive, let alone be an effective soldier or scientist. Twice Stöller was falsely convicted, to endure ultimate justice only when faraway St. Petersburg intervened! To give you an idea of how primitive the justice system was, officers captain and higher in rank could not be punished physically, and the lower orders connived endlessly to make the safe grade—or not lose it!

The first problem was survival supplies. Thousands of kilometers by land and by seas in all seasons threatened life with death daily. Scurvy was a constant threat. The rougher the winter weather, the longer a ship was without fresh vegetables with Vitamin C. Stöller was always alert to indigenous meats and plants that could control the disease. Indeed, in addition to his botanical training he had the makings of a cultural anthropologist forever uncovering survival tactics from the locals.

And there were islands completely bereft of trees so that what wood still extant had to be discovered buried under many feet of snow. When their ships were wrecked they had to dig into blue fox burrows and use them for protection from the snow. Most of his “science” time would be stolen by sheer survival tactics in the worst weathers: map making, plant collection (whose survival uses had to be extracted from the natives and their shaman),and animals captured for their meat and their furs, and their oils—for cooking.

He sailed for America in July 1741 with a crew of 78 (after 9 months of mapping the Kamchatka Peninsula). On 15 July he sights the Alaska shore and on 20 July they land on an offshore island. The next day the start to return to Kamchatka. On 29 August they reach an island group where an officer dies of scurvy. Stöller collects antiscorbutic herbs. It’s the first European contact with native Alaskans. On 6 November, the St.Peter shipwrecks on an island. (They build a smaller ship out of what is still seaworthy!)

On 8 December, Captain Bering dies. After thirty-two men die, the rest recover on “Bering” Island (where he’s buried!) by eating fresh sea mammal meat and herbs Dr. Stöller recommends. In 1743-44 he explores more Kamchatka. On 12 November he dies of fever on his way back to St.Petersburg. His invaluable notebooks and specimens are lost in the shuffle.

Until Dr.Wieland Hintzsche (Liz’s husband) discovers them in 1990 in the St.Petersburg’s Academy of Sciences Archives. (He has been busy ever since publishing them in a German edition.) “Stöller’s History of Kamchatka” wasn’t published until 1793. Careful readers will have noticed the missing Steller spelling. (There is no “ö” in the Cyrillic alphabet.)

To make it short Ms. Arnold’s book is a fascinating intellectual adventure, during which you see Russia Europeanize itself. Beginning with simple collecting of curios and customs, unknown plants and animals, the “museum” of organized memories enriches the curious. Unsung intellectual heroes is what Stöller and his colleagues are. Thanks, Liz. It was a kick observing reason at work so steadfastly.

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