Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was born May 11th 1752 in Gotha, Germany. Blumenbach attended the University of Jena, before moving to the University of Göttingen where he studied with naturalist Christian W. Büttner. Büttner taught Blumenbach through his lectures on exotic cultures and people, encouraging him to write his dissertation on the same topics. Blumenbach received his medical degree after finishing his dissertation, “De Generis Humani Varietate Native Liber” or “On the Nature of Mankind”, which described the variations in the human form do not represent the differences in species.

After the publication of his dissertation Blumenbach became the curator of the University of Göttingen’s natural history collection. He published Handbuch der Naturgeschichte (Handbook of Natural History) in 1779 in which he used morphological and ecological evidence to create a system to classify organisms. Blumenbach though that Linnaean system of classification did not accurately reflect nature, he hoped to correct these supposed problems with the Linnaean system by using morphological characteristics to define species. He also recognized the possibility for species to change or become extinct over time. Blumenbach reinforced and expanded on his ideas in Beiträge zur Naturgeschichte (Contributions to Natural History).

Blumenbach's five races

Blumenbach’s five races

Blumenbach introduced Bildungstrieb, or the formative force, to describe “a force within all organisms that operated on their bodies throughout development in order to give rise to their final forms”. He used Bildungstrieb to explain the evolution from the original type of human into five varieties – Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopian, and American – base on the size and shape of their craniums.

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach's skulls

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s skulls

Blumenbach was a naturalist through his life, and was among the first to describe the woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius, and helped name the platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus. He helped turn the natural history collection into one of the first anthropological museums, as he collected skulls, hair, skins, casts and pictures from around the world. In 1776 the collection included 85 skulls, and by the time he died in 1840 the collection had grown to 245 skulls including their detailed histories. The collection remained in the university into the 21st century.

I was interested in learning more about Johann Friedrich Blumenbach because of his argument against Linnaeus’ system of classification. Since we have learned about Linnaeus in class, it was interesting to learn how his theories and system evolved due to the help of other natural historians. I believe Blumenbach’s contributions were influential to natural history because we still use aspects of his research today, such as the classification of humans around the world.


MacCord, Kate, "Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840)". Embryo Project Encyclopedia (2014-01-22). ISSN: 1940-5030 http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/7512.