Finn O. Kapel

Otto Fabricius and the Seals of Greenland


The life of the Danish missionary, cleric, philologist, naturalist and ethnographer Bishop Otto Fabricius (1744-1822) is reviewed in the first part of this volume. His work, and his importance as a cleric and as the author of contributions to the study of the Greenlandic language are briefly mentioned; but the greatest importance is attached to his contribution to the sciences of natural history and ethnology. The work that made him famous is Fauna Groenlandica (1780), written in Latin and describing 473 animal species from Greenland, of which 130 were new to science. Although his daily duties were related to his ecclesiastical posts, he continued to conduct and publish scientific studies throughout his life. Most of this work was written in Danish, and its distribution was thus limited; however, his ethnographical works have been translated into English (Holtved 1962).

The second part of this volume contains the first translation into English of Fabricius’ treatise on the seals of Greenland. His contributions to the study of seals enjoy a unique position, since they reflect the intimate knowledge of these animals he was able to obtain, by living among seal hunters, a seal hunter himself. First he established the existence of four seal species in Greenland besides the common seal (Phoca vitulina), and provided their names to O.F. Müller (1776); secondly he presented precise descriptions of all five species in his Fauna Groenlandica (1780). Ten years later he published a comprehensive treatise on the seals of Greenland (1790 & 1791); and finally he wrote a detailed description of the seal hunting implements used by the Greenlanders (1810). A comparison with the works of previous and contemporary authors demonstrates that Fabricius’ contributions in this field rank high, particularly because of their stamp of personal and direct observation and experience. This was acknowledged by contemporary scientists, and was still recognized well into the nineteenth century; but today the name and work of Otto Fabricius seem to be known only to a few specialists.

Some later writers’ evaluations of Fabricius’ contributions to the study of natural history are mentioned in the third part of the volume, and an attempt is made to explore the character of the man behind the work.