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Johann Reinhold Forster (1729–1798)

by Tom Iredale

This article was published:

Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-1798), by Daniel Beyel (after John Francis Rigaud) [left, with his son Johann Georg Adam Forster] , 1781?

Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-1798), by Daniel Beyel (after John Francis Rigaud) [left, with his son Johann Georg Adam Forster] , 1781?

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9455835

Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-1798), author and naturalist, was born on 22 October 1729 at Dirschau (Tschew), Polish Prussia. His family originally was probably Scottish. He studied languages and history, and became a pastor at Nassenhüben near Danzig. In 1754 he married a cousin, who later that year gave birth to a son, Johann Georg Adam Forster. In 1765, invited by Empress Catherine of Russia, he went to investigate conditions at Saratov on the Volga; he was not paid, and having overstayed his leave, he lost his ministry, so in 1766 he moved to England. He was appointed to succeed Priestley at the Dissenters' Academy at Warrington, Lancashire. He taught languages and natural history, but after some friction he left the next year. Living in relative poverty, he produced A Catalogue of British Insects (1770); in 1771 he wrote about North American flora and fauna, translated Osbech's Voyage to China and used his knowledge of languages to make a living. These writings, a translation of Bougainville in 1772, and other pamphlets on natural history, made him known in scientific circles, won the acquaintanceship of Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander and procured his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1772. When Banks refused to sail on James Cook's second expedition, which was then getting ready, another influential friend of Forster, Daines Barrington, was able to procure for him the position of scientist on it, for which parliament had voted £4000. Forster seized his chance and took his son Georg as his assistant.

On the voyage Forster bitterly complained of his accommodation, the indifference of Cook to 'the study of nature' and the envy and malevolence of his companions; but, he wrote, it 'has always been the fate of science and philosophy to incur the contempt of ignorance'. He carried out his observations most diligently. At Cape Town he persuaded Andreas Sparrman, a pupil of Linnaeus, who was exploring the natural history of South Africa, to join him and paid his expenses. After the expedition returned home, Forster claimed that the Admiralty had agreed that he should write the account of the voyage, sharing the profits equally with Cook. The Admiralty denied this, told Forster he had been employed only as a collector and made other arrangements for writing up Cook's account.

Sandwich, at the Admiralty, was willing to help Forster publish a scientific volume, but, when the author refused to allow it to be 'edited', he was forbidden to publish anything until the official volumes appeared, a prohibition which he evaded by arranging for his son Georg to write A Voyage Round the World in His Britannic Majesty's Sloop Resolution … (1777) from his father's journals. In 1778 Forster published his own Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World, on Physical Geography, Natural History, and Ethic Philosophy … a work of considerable scientific merit. This was supplemented by Descriptiones Animalium Quae in Itinere ad Maris Australis Terras per Annos 1772 1773 et 1774 Suscepto Collegit Observavit et Delineavit Loannes Reinholdus Forster … posthumously published at Berlin in 1844.

Forster has been condemned as a man with a violent temper and impossible to work with, but this is perhaps too extreme. According to Solander, 'He is of all the men I know the most open or the greatest fool. He certainly has made some clever remarks during the Voyage, but he talks rather too much of them … He came home thinking himself very great—now he … is reduced even in his own opinion'. He returned to Germany and was appointed to a chair at the University of Halle. Before he died there on 9 December 1798, he translated, edited or reviewed many accounts of voyages including those of Arthur Phillip, John Hunter and John White

Select Bibliography

  • W. Wales, Remarks on Mr Forster's Account of Capt. Cook's Last Voyage Round the World in the Years 1772, 1773, 1774 and 1775 (Lond, 1778)
  • J. G. A. Forster, Reply to Mr Wales's Remarks (Lond, 1778)
  • Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, vol 7 (Leipzig, 1878)
  • J. Cook, The Voyage of the Resolution and the Adventure 1772-1775, ed J. C. Beaglehole (Cambridge, 1961)
  • J. Britten, ‘The Forster Herbarium’, Journal of Botany (London), 23 (1885).

Citation details

Tom Iredale, 'Forster, Johann Reinhold (1729–1798)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 15 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-1798), by Daniel Beyel (after John Francis Rigaud) [left, with his son Johann Georg Adam Forster] , 1781?

Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-1798), by Daniel Beyel (after John Francis Rigaud) [left, with his son Johann Georg Adam Forster] , 1781?

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9455835

Life Summary [details]


22 October, 1729
Tschew, Germany


9 December, 1798 (aged 69)
Halle, Saxony, Germany

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.