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    Otto Fabricius

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0293                                                                                                                  

    (Kaj Birket-Smith)


            Otto (or Otho) Fabricius (1744-1822), Danish missionary and scientist,

    was born on March 6, 1744, in Rudkøbing, a small town on the island of Lange–

    land, Denmark, a son of the Rev. Hans S. and Else Cathrine (Ursin) Fabricius.

    His father, who a ppointed dean in 1751, was at that time a man of rather

    ample means. In his library the boy was able to find not only works on divin–

    ity, but also on geography and history, and he was, as he himself said in later

    years, possessed of an insatiable lust for studying. Moreover, the older Fabri–

    cius was a friend of the famous J H ans Egede, founder of the Greenland mission,

    who had then retired from his labors in the Far North and had sometimes the

    opportunity of visiting the deanery on his journeys. There can be little doubt

    that both facts contributed very essentially to stimulate Otto's interest in

    the country where he was to spend the most important years of his life.

            When he was only eleven years old his father died and left the family in

    narrow circumstances, but after he had started his theological studies at Copen–

    hagen University in 1762 he was to some extent supported by his well-to-do grand–

    mother. Soon after his older half-brother, the son of his father by a previous

    marriage, returned from Greenland where he had worked as a missionary for some

    years. Fabricius had now definitely made up his mind to enter the service of

    the mission himself, and after having been instructed in the Eskimo language by

    Paul Egede, a son of Hans Egede, at the Greenland Seminary in Copenhagen, he left

    for the Arctic as a young divine in the summer of 1768.

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Otto Fabricius

            Frederikshaab, the place where Fabricius was appointed, was at that

    period the southernmost Danish settlement on the west coast of Greenland.

    It [ is true that it ] had been established 26 years before, but owing to the

    polar ice pack that usually blocks the coast till some time in June, navi–

    gation was considered dangerous, and communication was infrequent. The native

    inhabitants of the district were still very primitive; they kept up their

    roving habits, and blood feuds between families were far from being uncommon.

    There was still no church building at the settlement and only a single house

    with one room for the merchant, another for the missionary, and a third for the

    sailors. At that time the colonization had lasted long enough to make clear

    the unavoidable conflict between the economic demands of the Eskimos, to whom

    hunting excursions and a more or less constant continuous roaming from one place to an–

    other were of vital importance, and on the other hand the interests of the

    Mission that preferred to gather the population at one place where it might

    remain under the [constant?] influence of the missionary.

            Fabricius was an ardent and efficient servant of the Gospel, but he soon

    realized that it was a poor recommendation of his teachings, if Christianity

    was to be accompanied by increasing poverty. Accordingly he not only supported

    the inclinations of the native population to move away from the settlement,

    but he actually decided to do so himself. In 1770 he left Frederikshaab and

    settled at Iluilarssuk, one of the small inhabited places a few miles farther south,

    and remained there until he left Greenland for good in 1773. Easily contented

    and hardy to a degree, he took up the way of life of the Eskimos, thus gaining

    their confidence and good will. He dressed as a native and became an expert

    in handling a kayak. He also accompanied the hunters on their excursions and

    even attained considerable skill in sealing with the harpoon. A century and

    a half later the inhabitants of the place still preserved his memory in grate–

    ful remembrance.

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Otto Fabricius

            When Fabricius left Greenland he received first in 1774 a position as

    parson in Drangedal in southern Norway (which at that time was politically

    united with Denmark). It was a lonely place, and he did not get on well with

    his parishioners. After five years he went to Denmark where he was a parson,

    1779-81, in the small town of Hobro and afterwards, 1781-83, in the village of

    Rise on AErø south of Funen. In 1783, however, he was presented to a living

    in Copenhagen, until 1789 as a priest at the Orphans' Asylum and then as parson

    of one of the main churches, Our Saviour, which has always had close connections

    with the Greenland mission. In this position he remained till his death on May

    20, 1822. From 1783-on he also acted as lecturer at the Greenland Seminary,

    thus instructing the young missionaries in the Eskimo language, and was the

    actual, if not the official, leader of this institution.

            He was married twice, in 1775 to Anne Dorthe (Ziege) Fabricius who died in

    1785, and the following year to Anne Gunilde (Heinet) Fabricius, who died in

    1834. During his lifetime he obtained many acknowledgements for his achieve–

    ments both as a missionary and a scientist. As early as 1780 he was elected

    member of the Royal Danish Academy of Science and two years later of the Gesell–

    schaft naturforschender Freunde in Berlin. In 1803 he obtained the title of

    professor and in 1818 was made honorary bishop and doctor of divinity.

            Fabricius was hardly important as an orator, but he was a pious Christian.

    As a divine he was a strictly orthodox Lutheran and rather conservative, but by

    no means blind to the importance of reforms on certain points, for instance the

    ritual of the church. He also wrote some theological books on exegetic subjects,

    a collection of sermons, etc., which, however, do not concern us here. His

    principal achievements were in the field of science, to which he made consid–

    erable contributions as a zoologist, a linguist, and an ethnologist.

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Otto Fabricius

            It is probable that this zoological interest dates back to his boyhood,

    although direct evidence to this effect is lacking. Besides, it is not un–

    likely that the keen faculty of observation of the Eskimos in all matters

    concerning the animals of their country may have acted as a further stimulus.

    At any rate, he began making observations on the fauna as soon as he arrived

    in Greenland. A great number of his notes he sent to O.F. Müller, the well–

    known Danish zoologist in Copenhagen, who published them in his own papers,

    for which reason they often have been known to the public under Müller's name.

            Fabricius' main work as a zoologist appeared in the Latin language under

    the title Fauna Groenlandica (Copenhagen & Leipzig 1780). It has rightly been

    characterized as the first scientific description of the Greenland fauna. No

    less than 473 species, including 132 vertebrates and 341 invertebrates, are

    treated in the 468 pages of this book. About 130 of the animals described are

    new to science, although some of them, as just mentioned, had already been re–

    ferred to by O.F. Müller, Up to this time, for instance, the only seals known

    were the spotted seal and the bladdernose, but Fabricius added the ringed,

    barbed, and Greenland species. He introduced his work with a description of

    "Homo Groenlandus" and thence proceeded through the entire animal kingdom, con–

    cluding with the marine sponges. For each species he first gave the synonymy,

    then a description of the general characters, habitat, biology, and finally

    information about its use and the method of hunting employed by the Eskimos.

    As a whole the work is distinguished by painstaking exactness and care, being

    based almost exclusively on the author's personal observations. The biological

    parts are particularly valuable. The number of species discussed is, of course,

    only a small part of the animals at present known to belong to the fauna of

    Greenland It should be borne in mind, however, that at that time the west

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Otto Fabricius

    coast was the only part of the country from which useful information was

    available, and very limited possibilities for exploring the aquatic fauna

    were at hand. Moreover, Fabricius had to carry out his investigations by the

    simplest methods; he was not even in possession of a microscope. Under such

    circumstances it was an achievement of considerable merit to produce a work

    that created the foundation of all subsequent studies of this kind and is cited

    even to-day.

            The Fauna was Fabricius' principal work in zoology but by no means the

    only one. He was the first author to prove that the food of the great whalebone

    whales consists of small crustaceans and winged snails ("Om Hvalaaset," Nye

    Samling af det Kgl. Danske Videnskabernes-Selskabs Skrivter
    . I. 1781). In

    1788 he published a paper on the polar fox ("Field-Ræ ven," Ibidem . III), and

    in 1790 a monograph on the seals of Greenland ("Udførlig Beskrivelse over de

    Gronlandske Sæ le," Skrivter af Naturhistorie-Selskabet . I); in the latter work

    he added the first description of the gray seal to the species previously dis–

    cussed in the Fauna . He also wrote on the king eider ("Om den pukkelnebbede

    Edderfugl." Det Kgl. Danske Videnskabernes-Selskabs Skrivter . II. 1793) and

    the humpback whale ("Om Stub-Hvalen," Ibidem . VI. 1818).

            After he had left Greenland Fabricius continued his zoological observations

    and published several papers on various subjects. He has shown, for instance,

    that two forms of a certain fish ( Labrus ) are, in reality, the male and female

    animal of the same species, and that hogmeasles are the larvae of a tapeworm,

    an observation made already by Malpighi, the famous Italian naturalist, but later

    forgotten. It may be added that he also published a paper on the drifting ice

    ("Om Driv-Isen i de Nordlige Vande," Nye Samling af det Kgl. Danske Videnskaber–

    nes-Selskabs Skrivter
    . III. 1788). Here he realized the fundamental difference

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Otto Fabricius

    between the icebergs originating from the inland ice, and the polar ice pack.

    His view concerning the icebergs is, of course, unsatisfactory, because the

    glacier movements were still unknown at that period, nor had he himself seen

    any of the great ice fjords of North Greenland. As to the polar ice pack, he

    ventured the opinion that it originated from Siberian waters, supporting his

    view by the fact that it was accompanied by a great amount of driftwood con–

    sisting of spruce, pine, larch, and aspen: even though his theory is not quite

    correct, it gives evidence, at least, of his keen faculty of observation and

    logical inference.

            Fabricius' linguistic works are closely connected with his activities as

    a missionary and lecturer on the Eskimo language. He published a collection

    of 178 hymns by various authors, including himself ( Ivngerut tuksiutidlo , Copen–

    hagen 1788) and, in 1799, a new translation of the New Testament. On his death–

    bed he read the proofs of a translation of Genesis. From a scientific point of

    view, however, the main value is to be found in his grammar ( Forsøg til en

    forbedret Gronlandsk Grammatica
    , Copenhagen 1791) and his dictionary (Den Grøn–

    landske Ordbog, forbedret og foroget , Copenhagen 1804). Both works are to some

    extent based upon the earlier grammar and dictionary by Paul Egede, and so far

    as the dictionary is concerned, he also received considerable assistance from

    the notes of other missionaries. Nevertheless he shows great independence in

    the treatment of his material, much of which was derived from his personal ob–

    servations. Frederikshaab District, where he had lived in close contact with

    the native inhabitants, was in certain respects particularly well suited for

    linguistic studies, because many of the Eskimos there had traveled as far as

    the northern part of West Greenland, while on the other hand it was regularly

    visited by Eskimos from the Cape Farewell region.

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Otto Fabricius

            Fabricius created a more adequate orthography, and in the vocabulary he

    deliberately avoided an extensive use of loan-words for the designation of

    foreign concepts and instead introduced new words constructed according to

    the Eskimo patterns, thus initiating a tendency to keep the language uncon–

    taminated by outside influences which has prevailed to this day. In the grammar

    he still to some extent followed the principles of Latin constructions, speak–

    ing, for instance, of adjectives, tenses, cases, etc., which are, of course,

    foreign to the Eskimo language. On the other hand, his linguistic publications

    all evince the same qualities of unwearied industry and scrupulous accuracy

    as his zoological works. Samuel Kleinschmidt, the Moravian missionary, who

    nearly a century after Fabricius was the first to arrive at a real understand–

    ing of the peculiarities of the Eskimo language, expressed his deep admiration

    for Fabricius' linguistic knowledge.

            His ethnological works are closely connected with his activities as a

    zoologist. Living among the Eskimos and taking part in their hunting, a person

    of his abilities and power of observation could not avoid noticing the perfec–

    tion of their implements and the high degree of adaptation of their methods.

    As already mentioned, the Fauna includes many descriptions of hunting methods

    and the various kinds of use to which the animals are put. The same is true

    of his papers on the polar fox, the king eider, and the humpback whale; the

    latter gives a particularly interesting account of the hunting of both the

    humpback and the sperm whale.

            Two of his papers are, however, exclusively dedicated to ethnological

    subjects, one of them dealing with all the implements of the seal hunt (" Nøiagtig

    Beskrivelse over alle Gronlandernes Fange-Redskaber ved Saelhunde-Fangsten,"

    [ ?] Det Kgl. Danske Videnskabernes-Selskabs Skrivter . V. 1810),

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    EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Otto Fabricius

    and the other one with dear hunting, fowling, and fishing and the appertinent

    implements ("Nøiagtig Beskrivelse over Grønlandernes Landdyr-, Fugle-og Fiske–

    fangst med dertil horende Redskaber," Ibidem. VI. 1818). It is no exaggera–

    tion to say that in both works he is far ahead of his time. Never before and

    very rarely since has any trained ethnologist described the implements of a

    primitive people with greater care and understanding. It is not only that every

    single hunting weapon and implement as well as the way in which they are employed

    are mentioned, but every detail and its significance to the use are explained

    in such a manner as can only be done by a person who is thoroughly acquainted

    with them from experience.

            Thus, whereas Fabricius as a missionary can hardly claim more attention

    than many of his brother officials, his name as a man of science has rather

    increased than otherwise in the time that has elaps e é d since his death.


    Kornerup, B., Schultz-Lorentzen and Jensen, Ad. S., Biskop dr. theol. Otto

    Fabricius, Meddelelser om Grønland . LXII. Copenhagen 1923.


    Kaj Birket-Smith

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