On Amateurism in the 18th-Century Russian Science: The Case of Grigory Demidov and His Garden in Solikamsk

Publication type Article
Status Published
Affiliation: S. I. Vavilov Institute for the History of Science and Technology, Russian Academy of Sciences
Address: Moscow, Ul. Baltiyskaya, 14
Journal nameVoprosy istorii estestvoznaniia i tekhniki
EditionVolume 43 Issue 3

This article describes the case of Grigory Demidov from the dynasty of the wealthiest industrialists in 18th-century Russia, with an emphasis on his scientific amateurism and contribution to botany. Summarizing the literature on Demidov as a “botanophile”, the article offers a rethinking of the process of formation of his botanical interests. In line with the nobility’s tradition, Grigory set out to create a “paradise” with exotic plants on his estate in the Ural city of Solikamsk. There is a widespread historiographic belief that Demidov’s fascination with botany emerged due to Georg Steller, the naturalist with the Second Kamchatka Expedition, who had allegedly stayed in Solikamsk in 1739 en route to Siberia. However, our comparison of the archival sources and materials concerning Steller’s journey casts doubt on this hypothesis. On the contrary, in his letter to the botanist T. Gerber, written during the same period, Demidov recounted his experience of collecting endemic plants, including medicinal herbs, his desire to learn more about their taxonomy and nomenclature. Grigory’s amateur interest in the “science of plants” and his pharmaceutical skills were noted by Academicians G. F. Müller and I. G. Gmelin, who visited Solikamsk in 1742. Therefore, it is no coincidence that Steller, on the way back to St. Petersburg, in the spring of 1746 stayed with Demidov to salvage the plants collected during the Expedition. After Steller’s sudden death, Grigory became the owner of a vast collection of rare Kamchatka and Siberian plants. This collection enabled Demidov to begin exchanging seeds with professional botanists, primarily with Carl Linnaeus, in 1748. His correspondence with Linnaeus demonstrates an impressive progress in Grigory’s botanical experience and knowledge. The article argues that Grigory Demidov’s fascination with botany arose when he collected and cultivated ornamental and medicinal plants on his own. Professional botanists had only guided this process but had not initiated it. Nevertheless, Grigory Demidov’s amateur skills and scientific aspirations allow to place his name among the major actors in botany. Even Linnaeus himself had mentioned Demidov’s contribution to botany in his world-famous treatise, Species plantarum.                

KeywordsGrigory Akinfievich Demidov, Solikamsk Garden, the Demidovs, plant collecting, botany, botanical gardens, herbaria, amateurs, professionals, Georg Wilhelm Steller, Second (Great) Kamchatka Expedition, Russian Empire
Publication date23.09.2022
Number of characters72729
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