Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/December 1878/Sketch of Dr. Petermann



AUGUST HEINRICH PETERMANN, the world-renowned geographer, whose death under peculiarly painful circumstances was announced a few weeks ago, was born April 18, 1822, at Bleicherode, a small town in the Prussian province of Saxony. His parents destined him for the ministry of the church, and to this end sent him at an early age to the gymnasium or college of Nordhausen, one of the principal towns of his native province. Here he pursued the usual course of study in preparation for the university; but having in the mean time evinced a special liking and aptitude for geographical research, and especially for cartography, he abandoned the idea of entering the ministry, and gained admission to the Royal School of Geographical Art, founded three years previously at Potsdam by the well-known geographer Heinrich. Berghaus, who was himself principal of the institution. Here Petermann remained for six years, first as a student, later as Berghaus's secretary and librarian, assisting him also in constructing and designing his great "Physical Atlas." Through this association with Berghaus, Petermann was brought into relations of friendship and intimacy with many of the great travelers and savants of the time in Germany, and in particular was so fortunate as to attract the favorable notice of Alexander von Humboldt, who in 1841 employed him to draw a map illustrating his great work, "Asie Centrale."

In 1845, on the completion of Berghaus's "Physical Atlas," Petermann went to Edinburgh, where for two years he assisted the late Alexander Keith Johnston in adapting that work for the use of English readers. From Edinburgh he went to London, whither the fame of his meritorious services to the science of geography had preceded him.. He was elected to the Royal Geographical Society, and became one of its most active members. During the seven years which he passed in the British metropolis he weekly contributed to the Athenæum notices; of geographical progress, reviews of books, and the like. He also wrote geographical articles for the "Encyclopædia Britannica" and for the "English Cyclopædia." In association with the Rev. Thomas Milner he prepared a popular "Atlas of Physical Geography;" he also published many separate maps. He was in no mean degree instrumental in promoting the Richardson-Bartli-Overweg expedition sent out in 1849 by the British Government to explore Central Africa. Richardson having died at Unguratua in the spring of 1851, Barth succeeded to the leadership, and on his return to England published in three volumes an account of his travels. The maps illustrating this work were, as the author writes in his preface, "executed with artistic skill and scientific precision by Dr. Petermann." Henceforward the exploration of the "dark continent" was one of the two dominant thoughts of Petermann's mind, the other being north-polar exploration. He has awakened throughout Europe a lively interest in both of these departments of research, and there is no doubt that to him is due much of the advancement made in geographical knowledge during the last thirty years; and recent German explorers of Africa, as Heuglin, Munzinger, Rohlfs, Mauch, Schweinfurth, and Nachtigal, found in Petermann a powerful advocate to enlist popular sympathy for their labors. In high northern exploration he was a believer in an open Polar Sea, therein agreeing with our own great navigators, Kane and Hall, but his favorite route to the pole was along the east coast of Greenland, while our countrymen prefer the route through Davis Strait, along the west coast.

In 1854 he took up his residence at Gotha, having been appointed Director of Justus Perthes's Geographical Institute, the most extensive establishment in the world for the production of maps and charts; this position he held down to his death. That now well-known monthly journal of geography, Mittheilungen aus Justus Perthes' Geographischer Anstalt, was founded in 1855, succeeding Berghaus's geographical annual, the "Geographisches Jahrbuch." Petermann assumed the editorship of the new magazine, which quickly reached an eminence unattained by any other periodical of its class. The editor impressed his personality on every page of his magazine, and it is commonly known as Petermann's Mittheilungen. It was in the same year, 1855, that he received from the University of Göttingen the degree of Ph. D. Geographical societies throughout world have enrolled his name in the lists of their honorary membership, and in 1869 the Emperor of Austria conferred on him the order of the Iron Crown, in recognition of his services to arctic exploration. Some years ago he was appointed Professor of Geography in the Polytechnic School at Gotha (not in the University of Gotha, as some of the newspapers have it, and that for the sufficient reason that Gotha has no university). He visited the United States in 1876, and was received with fitting honors by the American Geographical Society of New York.

For a few days before his death Petermann suffered from a painful attack of bronchitis, coughing almost continually. At the same time he complained of a headache so intense that the slightest touch of a finger on the forehead caused him an agony of pain. To these physical ills were added domestic troubles of an extremely aggravating kind, and the result was a pitiable state of nervous excitement, amounting almost to frenzy. Life seemed unendurable, and, to terminate his sufferings, the great geographer died by his own hand on September 25th. His father and brother had died in the same manner.