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JOHANN BAPTIST VON SPIX (1781-1826)


Johann Baptist von Spix was born to an impoverished doctor in the small Bavarian town of Höchstadt an der Aisch. A precocious student, he studied philosophy, theology, and medicine at the universities of Bamberg and Würzburg and was awarded his PhD at the tender age of nineteen. After making the acquaintance of the young natural philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, however, Spix discovered his true interest in life, the study of the animal kingdom. In 1808, having worked for two years as a medical doctor – a not uncommon way of entering the field of zoology in the early nineteenth century – Spix came to the attention of King Maximilian I of Bavaria, partly through Schelling’s influence.  The king provided Spix with a generous stipend, which enabled him to travel to Paris, where he met and briefly studied with the great French naturalist Georges Cuvier. The knowledge he acquired in Paris, the world capital of the study of zoology, was invaluable, and in 1811 he was appointed curator of a collection of animal specimens now known as the Zoologische Staatssammlung München (Bavarian State Collection of Zoology).

Between 1811 and 1815, Spix published several groundbreaking studies, including a history of zoological classification, a work on primates, and a comparative anatomy of skulls.  While hard at work in his offices in Munich, he was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand the collections under his care.  In 1817, the daughter of Emperor Francis I of Austria was betrothed to crown prince Pedro of Portugal, who had been living in exile in Brazil with his father, King João of Portugal, following Napoleon’s invasion of his country ten years earlier.  King Maximilian, an enthusiastic bird collector and patron of the sciences, arranged for Spix and a twenty-two-year-old botanist named Karl Friedrich Philipp Martius to join the royal entourage that was to accompany the archduchess to South America (Juniper 2002).  Upon their arrival, the scientists were to undertake an in-depth study of Brazil’s natural history, Spix focusing on animal life and fossils, Martius on plants. On July 13, 1817, the ship carrying the future empress of Brazil and the two young Bavarian scientists reached its destination. “A sensation, not to be described, overcame us all at the moment when the anchor struck the ground at another continent,” Spix and Martius later recalled (Spix and Martius 1824, vol. 1, 124).  Six months spent in the capital city of Rio de Janeiro and in nearby São Paulo gave them time to adjust to the tropical climate and to inspect the natural history section of the fine library King João had brought from Portugal. In early December, the pair finally set out for Brazil’s sparsely settled interior, where many difficulties awaited them. Bad maps and flooded roads slowed their progress, while intolerable heat, venomous snakes, marauding cats, and swarms of insects made camp life stressful. Their guide disappeared one night, taking with him many of their valuables.

For all the hardships they encountered, however, Spix and Martius admitted at the end of their journey that “this simple mode of life had its peculiar charms” (ibid., vol. 2, 129). As far as collecting specimens was concerned, they were wildly successful.  Good fortune, they wrote, “attended all our collections of natural history, which, though exposed to innumerable hazards and dangers, have all, without exception, reached their final destination, a success which few travelers can boast” (ibid., vol. 1, 299). By the time they reached the port of Belém on April 16, 1820, they had traversed the arid northeast corner of Brazil and penetrated deep into the Amazon rainforest, a journey of almost 4,000 miles. All in all, they collected 350 species of birds, 85 species of mammals, 116 species of fish, 2,700 insects, and more than 6,500 botanical specimens. Many of these were previously unknown to science. The collection provided essential material for other scholars, including Louis Agassiz, whose first published work was a study of the fish Spix and Martius had brought back to Europe.

In recognition of their success, the returning travelers were granted the title Ritter (“Sir”) and permitted to add the word von (“of”) to their last names as a further mark of distinction. Spix immediately set about studying the vertebrates he had collected, especially the birds, which formed the basis of his two-volume Avium species novae, published in 1824 and 1825. He and Martius also issued the first part of a travel account, which was intended to be of interest to general readers as well as scientists. That volume, published in German in 1823 and English in 1824, still makes for entertaining reading. Sadly, Spix’s health never recovered from his grueling journey through the tropics, and he died in 1826, at the age of forty-five. Martius, who completed the final two volumes of the travelogue he had begun with Spix, went on to become a highly esteemed botanist. He died in 1868. (Michael Taylor)