Geologist, Palaeontologist, researcher of Siberia, he filled in the blanks in its map, and was responsible for mapping previously unknown geological regions of Russia
Aleksander Czekanowski’s father, Wawrzyniec, was a passionate entomologist and collector of insects. But it would be because of his son – prisoner of tsarist Russia, exiled barefoot to Siberia – that insects, arachnids, plants, mountains passes would carry his name…
Aleksander Czekanowski was born in Krzemieniec in Volhynia, on February 12, 1833. His mother, whose maiden name was Gaztell, the daughter of a professor at the University of Vilnius, died when Alexander was but a small child. His father worked at the secondary school in Krzemieniec.
At the age of 17, Aleksander commenced medical studies at the University of Kiev. Medicine, however, was not his passion, he was more interested in earth sciences, geology. In 1855, he transferred to the University of Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonia). He spent two years attending lectures on mineralogy at the Geology Department. After completing his studies, he returned to Kiev, and worked on sorting out the university’s collections. Before the outbreak of the January Uprising (1863-1864) – Polish national revolt against Russia, then occupying part of Poland, his home was a meeting place for the youth. He was arrested by the Russians in 1863 for his participation in the uprising and sent into exile in Siberia. He was chased on foot from Kiev to Tobolsk, and further, to the river Angara. He lived in poverty, working for peasants while conducting scientific research.
In1868, the Russian authorities released Czekanowski from compulsory work and authorised his transfer to Irkutsk. He carried out observations of geological structures in the Angara valley and the Baikal mountains, Chamer-Daban. He developed the geological map of the province of Irkutsk. This gained him great recognition in the scientific community. He was awarded a Gold Medal by the Russian Scientific Society. The results of his research and observations were published in 1874, in the XI volume of the branch of the Russian Eastern Siberian Geographical Society. There was such an abundance of material, that it filled all 400 pages of the volume. The Russian Geographical Society entrusted him with directing scientific expeditions into scarcely explored regions or those never before studied – the blank spaces on the maps of Siberia, between the rivers Jenisa, Lena, and the Arctic Ocean. The area north of the river Oleniok was entirely unknown.
Aleksander Czekanowski organized three expeditions. The first took place in 1873, in Lower Tungusk Valley district in Tunguska, where among other things, he discovered carbon and graphite ores. The second, in 1874, included exploratory research in the basin of the rivers Oleniok and Lena. He rafted 1600 km downstream the Oleniok River, until ice stopped him in his tracks. He walked on further. He returned with a collection of plants, animals and fossils.
This uninhabited region was also the goal of the third expedition in 1875. Together with entomologist Zygmunt Węglowski, a Pole also exiled by the tsar to Siberia, they arrived at Lena. They reached the region from which Czekanowski turned back earlier, and continued all the way to the coast of the Arctic Ocean – the coast of Laptev Sea, exploring a part of it.
During these three expeditions, lasting a few months each, the participants covered a total of 25,000 km. They travelled by boat, on land, on horseback or by sled. The scientific results of the expeditions, carried out in very difficult conditions, at the expense of their health, because of Czekanowski’s great commitment, organizational skills and perseverance, have proven to be extremely valuable, contributing a vast knowledge of Siberia to science. They mainly conducted geological research, but the expeditions also brought many valuable observations from the filed of geography in areas such as limnology, potamology, science of soil, geomorphology, plant geography. The head of the expeditions carried out measurements and meteorological and astronomical observations. He made hydrographical reports. In places where he encountered people, he undertook linguistic observations and those of the customs and daily life.
Czekanowski collected about 4,000 paleontological specimens, 18,000 zoological samples, 9,000 botanicals, and also a number of ethnographical oddities. Academician, E. B. Schmidt, in the preface to his “Journal” wrote: “These expeditions brought the richest geological results of any undertaken in Siberia. Czekanowski’s extensive works (…) translated into all languages became the achievement of science, and the maps he created, have to a large degree changed and completed the maps of Asian Russia.”
In 1876, the International Geographical Congress in Paris awarded a Gold Medal for the map of eastern Siberia, created by Czekanowski.
In 1876 he went to Stockholm to consult the materials from Spitsbergen. After his return, he got the permission of the Russian authorities for a short trip to his hometown of Krzemieniec. He was also allowed to travel to St. Petersburg, where he worked on his collections – geographical, geological, paleontological, as well as a collection of fossilized plants and insects. (Other scientists described the botanical and zoological collections.) His health deteriorated due to the typhoid he suffered from earlier. He found the return home and the changes that took place there over the years very difficult. The depressing weather conditions of Petersburg also impacted his wellbeing. All this brought on a deep psychological depression.
On September 30, Czekanowski committed suicide by taking poison. In the obituary of the Russian Geographical Society, with which he collaborated for many years, was written: “His name, that has become famous not only in Russia but also in western Europe, will be remembered forever as one of the most outstanding pioneers of geographical knowledge.”
A mountain range in Siberia, between the Lena and Oleniok rivers, was named after him – Czekanowski Mountains, as well as one of the Baikal peaks and a settlement near Brack, along the Angara. In Poland, streets in Lublin and Zielona Gora carry his name. In his honour, a plant from the Jurassic period in named after him, as well as Triassic ammonites Czekanowskites. Numerous plants, and an equal number of different species of insects, spiders, and crustaceans were also named after him.
In 1976, the Polish Post Office issued a stamp to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Aleksander Czekanowski.
In 2004, the National Bank of Poland introduced into circulation collectible coins with Czekanowski’s likeness in denominations of 2 PL and 10 PL.
Zdzisław and Edyta Preisner
Ed. Monika Rogozińska
Wacław Słabczyński „Polscy podróżnicy i odkrywcy”
Editor Joanna Arvaniti „Polscy badacze Syberii”, author of the article: Małgorzta Sobieszczak-Marciniak „Aleksander Piotr Czekanowski”, Archiwum Polskiej Akademii Nauk, Warszawa 2008