Karl Ernst von Baer

(28.II 1792 - 28.XI 1876)

For many centuries, Estonia has been a multi-national country. Peoples of many different cultures and nationalities have through the years contributed to the development of today's Estonian national culture.
One of the most important of these groups was the Baltic-Germans, who lived on the south and eastern coasts of the Baltic Sea for more than 700 years. Among the most renowned of the Baltic-Germans was the versatile naturalist Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876).

Little more need be said of the Baer's significance than that since 1992 his portrait has been on the 2-kroon bank note of the Republic of Estonia. This is both to honour one of Estonia's greatest scholars and to show respect to the non-Estonian cultures that have played such a considerable role in Estonian history and culture. In 1976, the Institute of Zoology and Botany, today an institution of the Estonian Agricultural University, founded a museum in the house in which Baer lived from 1867 to 1876, in order to pay homage to his contributions and achievements and to study his scientific legacy.

Baer's long and successful career as a scientist started on the Estate of Piibe (Piep) in Järva County, but as a relatively young man took him abroad, where he stayed for most of his working life. After having graduated from the medical department of the University of Tartu in 1814, Baer continued his studies in Vienna, Würzburg and Berlin. Beginning in 1817, he worked for the University of Königsberg. Baer had a wide range of scholarly interests, and was active as an organizer of scientific research and as a scientist himself in numerous fields, including zoology, botany, comparative anatomy, physical anthropology and the geography of the Arctic. It was only in 1825 that Baer completely devoted himself to the investigation of the mammalian embryo. This resulted in 1827 in the discovery of the mammalian ovum, which lay the foundations of the science of modern embryology. However, his later investigations in this field were not as successful, and he eventually moved to St Petersburg in 1834. There he worked as a zoologist, and later as a physiologist, at the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences.

The St Petersburg period (1834-67) saw Baer involved in numerous and widely divergent scientific projects and organisational work. During this period, he worked primarily as a zoologist, but was also greatly interested in the investigation of the physical geography of Russia. He made several expeditions and organised a number of others, initiated the setting up of the Russian Geographical Society, founded the science of geocryology, and introduced the law of the asymmetry of river banks. He helped found the sciences of physical anthropology and ethnography and was active as a scientific politician and librarian.

During this period, Baer's connections with his homeland became closer (he spent his summers at Piibe), particularly with the scholars at the University of Tartu. Although Baer never worked at Tartu, he took part in the natural scientific investigation of Estonia. From 1838 to 1842, he repeatedly visited the coastal area of northern Estonia with the aim of establishing the traces there of the glacial era. In the years 1851-53, Baer was the first to carry out systematic studies into the fisheries of Lake Peipsi and the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. Owing to his activities, the first law for the conservation of nature was adopted in Russia (1859), regulating fishing. Baer continued his participation in the study of the natural history of Estonia through the Naturalists' Society of Tartu (founded in 1853). He maintained close contacts with numerous members of the Estonian intelligentsia, including the writer Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald.

In 1867, Baer moved to Tartu. This had a major effect both on the university, which became acknowledged as the top centre of scientific investigation in the country, and on local scientific life in general, as Baer continued his practice of organising scientific discussions (as he had formerly done in St Petersburg). One of the discussion topics of particular import was the relationship between science and religion. In addition, his investigations into evolutionary theory and the history of geography continued. Baer died on 28 November (new calendar) 1876 and was buried at the Vana-Jaani cemetery in Tartu. He had written more than 400 scholarly papers, and his voluminous hand-written scientific legacy enables scholars today to carry out detailed investigations into the science of the 19th century.

Life chronology

1792       born on the Estate of Piibe in the Province of  Estonia on 28 February
1807-10  studied at Tallinn Cathedral School
1810-14  studied medicine at the University of Tartu
1814-17  continued his studies at the universities of  Vienna, Würzburg and Berlin 
1817-19  prosector in zoology at the University of  Königsberg
1819-22  senior lecturer in zoology at the University of  Königsberg
1822-34  full professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at the University of Königsberg
1827        an investigation of the discovery of the mammalian ovum, De ovi mammalium et hominis 
                 genesi, was published
1828        the classical investigation of the embryonal development of animals Über 
                 Entwickelungsgaschichte der Thiere (Vol 1.) was published
1828        An interlude at the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences as the first member of academy in
1830-34  the second period at the University of Königsberg
1834        Bae r is, at his own request, elected the member of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences in
                  zoology (holding the second position) for the second time
1835-62  at the post of the head of the department of foreign literature of the library of the St Petersburg
                  Academy of Sciences
1837        expedition to Novaya Zemlya and Russian Lapland
1840        expedition to the White Sea and Russian Lapland
1841-52  full professor of comparative anatomy and physiology at the Medico-Surgical (military)
                  Academy of St Petersburg
1842-43  wrote a pioneering article on Siberian permafrost Materialien zur Kenntniss des
                  unvergänglichen Boden-Eises in Sibirien
1845        the initiative of Baer for the foundation of the Russian Geographical Society was realised  
                  together with Friedrich Benjamin Lütke and Ferdinand von Wrangell
1845-48  head of the ethnographical department of the Russian Geographical Society and the
                 beginning of the investigation of small nations living in the Russian Empire at his initiative
1851-52  five expeditions for studying the fisheries of Lake Peipsi and the Baltic Sea
1853-56  four expeditions to the Caspian Sea and the Volga River with the aim of studying their
1856        discovered the law of the asymmetry of river banks
1860        president of the Russian Entomological Society
1861        chairman at the conference of German anthropologists in Göttingen
1862        expedition to the Sea of Azov
1862        retired from the service of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences and was elected a
                 honorary  member of the Academy with voting rights
1862        working for the Ministry of Public Education of Russia and the elaboration of the new
                  university  law
1867        settled in Tartu
1869-76  president of the Naturalists� Society of Tartu
1876        died on 28 November

(compiled by E. Tammiksaar)

Karl Ernst von Baer House, Estonian University of Life Sciences
Veski St 4, 51005 Tartu, Estonia 
Tel: +372 7421 514,  baeremu.ee