Johan Christian Fabricius: The Danish Zoologist

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Johan Christian Fabricius

Johan Christian Fabricius lived from 7 January 1745 to 3 March 1808 and was a Danish zoologist specializing in insects which included what are now classified as insects, arachnids, crustaceans and others. He was a student of Carl Linnaeus, a well known Swedish scientist who pioneered cataloging and classsifiying species.

Fabricius extensive classification of animals

Fabricius was considered one of the most important entomologists of the 18th century, having named some 10,000 species of animal life and establishing the basis for modern insect classifications.

Fabricius’s Life

Johan Fabricius was born in Tønder in South Jutland. He was a professor first in Copenhagen and then later in Kiel in Holstein, then part of Denmark, where he was a Professor of Natural History.

His father, a doctor, was a man of limited means but had assured his son’s education in natural history. He was allowed to study for two years from 1762 to 1764 with Linnaeus in Uppsala. Fabricius remained dedicated to Linnaeus and Linneaus’s scholarship all of his life. After completing his studies with Linnaeus, he started work on his “Systema entomologue” which was ultimately completed in 1775, consisting of 832 pages. Throughout this period of his life he was dependent upon the financial support of his father.

Fabricius was appointed a professor in Copenhagen in 1770. In 1775 or possibly 1776, the University of Kiel appointed Fabricius Professor of Natural History. His acceptance of the position was conditioned upon the university building a natural hisotry museum and a botanical garden in Kiel. He subsequently tried to resign from this post but was prevailed upon to keep the post when his students intervened and appealed to the King and Duke of Schleswig, Christian VII.

During his life Fabricius repeatedly traveled to London in the summer to visit and study the collections of various British naturalists such as Joseph Banks and Dru Drury. Towards the end of his career , Fabricius spent much of his time in Paris meeting with naturalists George Cuvier and Pierre André Latrille. The later visits were interrupted when Fabricius learned of the Bristish attack on Copenhagen in 1807. At this time, Fabricius returned to Denmark further impairing his already fragile health. He died in 1808 at the age of 63. He had two sons and a daughter. His daughter had died in an accident in Paris. Both of his sons studied medicine.

Classifications still bear his Name

The symbols, F., Fab, and Fabr., after a species name signifies Fabricius’s classifications.

Another Fabricius

He also had a distant relative, Otto Fabricius, who was a curate, a clergyman in charge of a parish, in Greenland from 1768 to 1773 and wrote “Fauna Grøenlandia” in 1780.

His writings

While Fabricius authored other books such as his autobiography, his books on entolomolgy are the most well known and comprise ten volumes starting in 1775 with Systema entolmologiae and concluding with Systema Glassatorum in 1807. Various parts of animal anotomy bear his name such as the “bursa of Fabricius”, a gland located near the region of the cloaca in birds. The bursa of Fabricius is a specialized organ producing “B” type cells enabling the bird to produce anitbodies. Fabricius’s role in identifying this structure ultimately led to an understanding of its role in producing antibodies in avians.