An enterprising etymologist turned a 2-acre patch of Central Park into a global phenomenon
Starting in the 1870s, Marianne North traveled solo through Brazil, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, and Australia.
In 1741, Georg Wilhelm Steller became the first European to step foot in Alaska. Marooned there for nearly nine months after his boat ran aground, the German-born naturalist went on to discover several spectacular animals, and promptly named them all after himself. Steller’s finds range from arguably the world’s largest eagle to a whale-sized relative of the manatee to the iconic sea otter. Steller was one of the pioneering naturalists of the 18th century, yet his story — equal parts tragedy and dark comedy — is largely unknown. Steller’s life veered from the halls of Bavarian academia to shipwrecks on remote Aleutian islands. He loved animals and was chiefly responsible for one notable extinction. And he mystifies scientists to this day with a detailed description of an animal nobody has ever seen again: Steller’s Sea Ape.
Steller, whose birth name was originally Stöller, was born in 1709, near Nuremberg. Like many naturalists of his era, he was mostly interested in plants, and earned a degree in botany while in university in Berlin. But Steller had no interest in exploring the lush jungles of the tropics: instead, he moved east, ending up in the Russian army as a surgeon for a brief time. While there, he befriended another naturalist, and when that man died, Steller married his widow, Brigitta.
Soon afterward, in 1741, Steller met Captain Vitus Jonassen Bering, who commanded a ship called the St. Peter, which was chartered for exploration. The St. Peter, along with a sister ship, the St. Paul, were due to traverse what we now think of as the Bering Strait, between Russia and Alaska. The trip was a disaster. The two ships got separated almost immediately in a storm, though both ended up landing on various parts of what is now Alaska. The St. Paul crashed into some of the Aleutian Islands, but the St. Peter was the first to actually hit mainland Alaska. And guess who stepped out first? Yep, Steller.