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Langsdorff, Georg Heinrich

Georg von Langsdorff (1774-1852) was born in 1774, son of Baron Johann Gottlieb Emil von Langsdorff and Mayor of the city of Wӧllstein. In 1797, Georg graduated from the University of Gӧttingen with the degree of Doctor of Medicine and Surgery. His personal interests, however, were much wider, and his love for travel and exploration shaped the course of his life. After graduation he served in Portugal, and travelled in London and Paris. When the news about preparation for the Russian round the world voyage reached Langsdorff in 1803, he hurried to Copenhagen to meet with Kruzenshtern and Rezanov, pleaded to join the expedition, and was accepted.

Sailing on the Nadezhda, he arrived first at Petropavlovsk and then proceeded to Nagasaki, where Rezanov was hoping to negotiate a trade agreement between Russia and Japan. The mission was unsuccessful: after six months under house arrest Rezanov was allowed to leave Japan without the audiences he sought. Once in Kamchatka, Rezanov arranged to sail for North America and Langsdorff went with him as his personal physician. Over the following two years he visited the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak, Sitka, and San Francisco Bay. Much of his time was occupied with his immediate duties as physician and interpreter, and his scholarly interests received virtually no support from Russian-American Company officials. Nevertheless, he returned to St. Petersburg with sixteen boxes of specimens and extensive travel notes, which he published in German in 1812. An abridged version was later translated into English and several other languages. The German edition was beautifully illustrated with images, most of which are credited to Langsdorff himself. Technical drawings of watercraft published in the same volume were made by the shipwright Ivan Koriukin. 

Langsdorff’s further career was focused on South America. In 1812 he became Russian consul in Brazil, a position he occupied until 1825. In 1826, he contracted a severe form of malaria, which affected his nervous system and caused loss of memory. His family took him back to Europe, where he recovered his physical health, but not his mental capacity. The Russian Academy of Science gave him a pension, and for the following two decades he resided with relatives in Freiburg. He died in 1852, at the age of 78.

Sources and literature:

Komissarov, B. N. Grigori Ivanovich Langsdorf. Leningrad: Nauka, 1975.

Langsdorff, G. H. von. Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World, During the Years 1803, 1804, 1805, 1806 and 1807. Illustrated by Engravings from Original Drawings. London: Printed for Henry Colburn and Sold by George Goldie, Edinburgh and John Cumming, 1813.

Pierce, Richard A.  Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1990.