Nikolai Turchaninov - the Discoverer of Baikal Plants
© Photo: Key To Baikal
July, 03

Nikolai Turchaninov - the Discoverer of Baikal Plants

His fate is truly amazing, and his contribution to the study of the rich flora of Baikal region is invaluable. Therefore, the surname of Nikolai Stepanovich Turchaninov (1796 - 1863) was carved on the frieze of the building of the Irkutsk Regional Museum, alongside with the medallions with the names of the most famous discoverers of the Siberian region...

A graduate of Kharkiv University with a degree of Candidate of Science in Physics and Mathematics, a financial official who came to serve in Irkutsk from the capital, a State Counselor, a Corresponding Member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, a “scientist traveling between Altai and the Eastern Ocean”, an outstanding Russian botanist, florist and classifier, the largest researcher of the flora of Eastern Siberia. All these features that sometimes seem incompatible are characteristic of one person for whom botany was originally just a hobby.

Service in Irkutsk and Serving the Land of Siberia

From 1814 to 1828, Nikolai Stepanovich worked in St. Petersburg, first at the Ministry of Justice, and then at the Financial Ministry. Already living in the capital, he tried to combine his bureaucratic career with scientific activities in the field of his main hobby - botany. There are known facts of his cooperation with the Botanical Garden and Moscow Society of Naturalists.

However, according to the general opinion of the researchers, Turchaninov's creative nature was mostly disclosed at the time when he worked in Irkutsk (from 1828 to 1837); a part of that time he officially worked a financial official at the Office of the Governor-General of Eastern Siberia.

Nikolai Stepanovich arrived in Irkutsk at a rather young age, he was 32 then, but he already was an experienced botanist and florist, without any biological education.

The city was chosen not by mere chance. This was an advice of the Director of the Imperial Botanical Garden of St. Petersburg, Friedrich Ernst Ludwig Fischer (Russians called him Fyodor Bogdanovich), a German botanist and gardener who was drea,omg of creating a botanical garden in Irkutsk and who saw Turchaninov as its future Director. The archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences has preserved the corresponding entry about Nikolai Stepanovich: “An admirer of science who wanted to get a position of Director of the Irkutsk Botanical Garden that was to be open there”.  By the way, Turchaninov managed to fulfill his wish, although indirectly. After all, he was the one who captivated the merchant Basnin with the practical implementation of the idea of a “botanical garden”. 

Irkutsk is a very special chapter in Turchaninov’s biography. He lived there a total of 9 years, during 5 of them he was engaged only in his favorite work - botany.

Although Irkutsk was the second largest city in Siberia, it can be called quite small by modern standards: it had only 16–18 thousand inhabitants. There was no scientific institutions back then, and Nikolai Stepanovich was engaged in research work under the auspices of the St. Petersburg Botanical Garden and Academy of Sciences; he was elected a corresponding member of the Academy in 1830. At the same time he was appointed to a position with an extremely fancy name: “a scientist traveling between Altai and the Eastern Ocean” (from 1830 to 1835). The Academy paid him a salary, as well as gave money for expeditions. During the rest of the time, Turchaninov financed his scientific journeys at his own expense.

Turchaninov devoted his free time not only to botany, but also to the study of invertebrate animals of Siberia.

The initial routes in the vicinity of Irkutsk were rather short at first, gradually they increased, covering the areas around Baikal and the territory of Dahuria (Transbaikalia and the west of the Amur Region). For instance, Nikolai Stepanovich managed to get to the territory of Mongolia through the passes in the Eastern Sayan Mountains; crossed the Baikal Range; passed along the Barguzin River up to its very source. Turchaninov traveled along the banks of Angara and walked more than 100 km along the Yakutskoye highway on foot.

After returning to public service, he continued his research during summer holidays, mainly working with the vegetation of the southern coast of Lake Baikal.

The expeditions of Turchaninov expeditions were not always easy, but they certainly were extremely useful for the botany of Siberia.

Namely in Irkutsk he wrote his famous fundamental work “The Baikal and Dahurian Flora” that was later awarded the Demidov Prize (a non-state prize in the Russian Empire given to the scientists who made an outstanding contribution to the development of science).

The Contribution of Turchaninov to the Botany of Siberia

Nikolai Turchaninov - the Discoverer of Baikal PlantsThe “The Baikal and Dahurian Flora” was published in separate editions over the course of 16 years (1842–1857) by the Bulletin of the Moscow Society of Naturalists. This work contains a description of almost 1.5 thousand plant species, 170 of these were new at that time. The most part of the described plants were collected by the author himself.

The most remarkable, undoubtedly, is Tridactylina kirilowii, a monotypic “Baikal aster” (a monotypic genus is a genus containing only one plant species) that has long been considered endemic to the southern coast of Baikal. 


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