Engelbert Kaempfer

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"Japanese alphabet" (Engelbert Kaempfer: History of Japan, 1727)
Court Journey to the Shogun of Japan in 1691 (Engelbert Kaempfer: History of Japan, 1727)

Engelbert Kaempfer (September 16, 1651 – November 2, 1716) was a German naturalist and physician known for his tour of Russia, Persia, India, South-East Asia, and Japan between 1683 and 1693. He wrote two books about his travels. Amoenitatum Exoticarum, published in 1712, is important for its medical observations and the first extensive description of Japanese plants (Flora Japonica). His History of Japan, published posthumously in 1727, was the chief source of Western knowledge about the country throughout the 18th century.

Early life[edit]

Kaempfer was born at Lemgo in the principality of Lippe, Westphalia, where his father was a pastor. He studied at Hameln, Lüneburg, Hamburg, Lübeck and Danzig (Gdańsk), and after graduating at Kraków, spent four years at Königsberg in Prussia, studying medicine and natural science.



In 1681, he visited Uppsala in Sweden, where he was offered inducements to settle; but his desire for foreign travel led him to become secretary to the embassy which Charles XI sent through Russia to Persia in 1683. He reached Persia by way of Moscow, Kazan and Astrakhan, landing at Nizabad in Dagestan after a voyage in the Caspian Sea; from Shemakha in Shirvan he made an expedition to the Baku peninsula, being perhaps the first modern scientist to visit these fields of eternal fire. In 1684 he arrived in Isfahan, then the Persian capital. When after a stay of more than a year the Swedish embassy prepared to return, Kaempfer joined the fleet of the Dutch East India Company in the Persian Gulf as chief surgeon, and in spite of fever caught at Bander Abbasi he found opportunity to see something of Arabia and of many of the western coast-lands of India.

Siam & Japan[edit]

In September 1689, Kaempfer reached Batavia; spent the following winter studying Javanese natural history, and in May 1690 set out for Japan as physician to the VOC trading-post in Nagasaki. En route to Japan, the ship in which he sailed touched at Siam, whose capital he visited. Here he recorded his meeting with the Siamese Minister and former ambassador to France Kosa Pan.[1] In September 1690 he arrived in Nagasaki, the only Japanese port then open to Dutch and Chinese ships.

Kaempfer stayed two years in Japan, during which time he twice visited Edo and the Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi there. He conducted extensive studies on local plants, many of which were published in his "Flora Japonica" (part of Amoenitatum Exoticarum). When he visited Buddhist monks in Nagasaki in February 1691, he was the first western scholar to describe the tree Ginkgo biloba. He brought some Ginkgo seeds back that were planted in the botanical garden in Utrecht and can still be seen today. The "awkward" "–kgo" spelling appears to be an error Kaempfer made in his notes, a more precise romanization would have been "Ginkjo" or "Ginkio".[2]

Kaempfer also collected materials and information on Japanese acupuncture and moxibustion. His treatise on the cure of colic (Japanese senki) using needles and his presentation of a Japanese "Moxa-mirror" had a considerable impact on the reception of Far Eastern medicine in 18th-century Europe.[3]

During his stay in Japan, his tact, diplomacy and medical skill overcame the cultural reserve of the Japanese, and enabled him to elicit much valuable information. In November 1692 he left Japan for Java.

Return to Europe[edit]

After twelve years abroad, Kaempfer returned to Europe in 1695, landing at Amsterdam. He was awarded a medical degree at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

Kaempfer settled down in his native city of Lemgo, where he became the physician of the Count of Lippe. In Germany he published the book Amoenitatum exoticarum (Lemgo 1712) which showed among many other Japanese plants an illustration of a camellia and introduced 23 varieties. Notable for its description of the electric eel, acupuncture, and moxibustion. His systematic description of tea as well as his other work on Japanese plants was praised by Linnaeus, who adopted some of Kaempfer's plant names like Ginkgo.

In 1716, Kaempfer died at Lemgo. Most of his manuscripts and many objects from his collection are preserved in the British Library and the British Museum.[4]


Manuscript from Engelbert Kaempfer, British Library Add Mss 2912

At Kaempfer's death his mostly unpublished manuscripts were purchased by Sir Hans Sloane, and conveyed to England. Among them was a History of Japan, translated from the manuscript into English by Sloane's librarian John Gaspar Scheuchzer (1702–1729) and published at London, in 2 vols., in 1727. The original German ("Heutiges Japan", Japan of Today) had not been published, the extant German version being taken from the English. Besides Japanese history, this book contains a description of the political, social and physical state of the country in the 17th century. For upwards of a hundred years it remained the chief source of information for the general reader, and is still not wholly obsolete. A life of the author is prefixed to the History. Kaempfer's original manuscripts are currently kept in the British Library. Most of them have been published since 2001:

Engelbert Kaempfer, Werke. Kritische Ausgabe in Einzelbänden. Herausgegeben von Detlef Haberland, Wolfgang Michel, Elisabeth Gössmann.

  • Vol 1/1 Engelbert Kaempfer: Heutiges Japan. Herausgegeben von Wolfgang Michel und Barend J. Terwiel. 2001.[xiv, 779 pp., 93 ills. Transliteration of EKs manuscript British Library London, Ms Sl 3060, reproduction of drawings, index]
  • Vol 1/2 Engelbert Kaempfer: Heutiges Japan. Herausgegeben von Wolfgang Michel und Barend J. Terwiel. 2001 [vii, 828 pp., 56 ills.] [Extensive commentary by Michel on Kaempfer's manuscript and drawings, Japanese and Western coworkers, Kaempfer's research context, his Japanese collection etc. including a bibliography] ISBN 3-89129-931-1
  • Vol 2 Briefe 1683-1715.- München: Iudicium Verl., 2001. ISBN 3-89129-932-X ["Letters 1683-1715"]
  • Vol 3 Zeichnungen japanischer Pflanzen. – München: Iudicum Verl., 2003. ISBN 3-89129-933-8 ["Drawings of Japanese plants"]
  • Vol 4 Engelbert Kaempfer in Siam. – München: Iudicum Verl., 2003. – ISBN 3-89129-934-6 ["Kaempfer in Siam"]
  • Vol 5 Notitiae Malabaricae. – München: Iudicum Verl., 2003. ISBN 3-89129-935-4 ["Notes on Malabar": on the southern India region, nowadays known as South Kerala]
  • Vol 6 Russlandtagebuch 1683. – München: Iudicum Verl., 2003. ISBN 3-89129-936-2 ["Russia diary 1683"]

Kaempfer's Works[edit]

  • Exercitatio politica de Majestatis divisione in realem et personalem, quam […] in celeberr. Gedanensium Athenaei Auditorio Maximo Valedictionis loco publice ventilendam proponit Engelbertus Kämpffer Lemgovia-Westphalus Anno MDCLXXIII d. 8. Junii h. mat. Dantisci [=Danzig], Impr. David Fridericus Rhetius.
  • Disputatio Medica Inauguralis Exhibens Decadem Observationum Exoticarum, quam […] pro gradu doctoratus […] publico examini subjicit Engelbert Kempfer, L. L. Westph. ad diem 22. Aprilis […] Lugduni Batavorum [Leiden], apud Abrahanum Elzevier, Academiae Typographum. MDCXCIV.
  • Amoenitatum exoticarum politico-physico-medicarum fasciculi v, quibus continentur variae relationes, observationes & descriptiones rerum Persicarum & ulterioris Asiae, multâ attentione, in peregrinationibus per universum Orientum, collecta, ab auctore Engelberto Kaempfero. Lemgoviae, Typis & impensis H.W. Meyeri, 1712.
  • The History of Japan, giving an Account of the ancient and present State and Government of that Empire; of Its Temples, Palaces, Castles and other Buildings; of its Metals, Minerals, Trees, Plants, Animals, Bi*rds and Fishes; of The Chronology and Succession of the Emperors, Ecclesiastical and Secular; of The Original Descent, Religions, Customs, and Manufactures of the Natives, and of their Trade and Commerce with the Dutch and Chinese. Together with a Description of the Kingdom of Siam. Written in High-Dutch by Engelbertus Kaempfer, M. D. Physician to the Dutch Embassy to the Emperor's Court; and translated from his Original Manuscript, never before printed, by J. G. Scheuchzer, F. R. S. and a member of the College of Physicians, London. With the Life of the Author, and an Introduction. Illustrated with many copperplates. Vol. I/II. London: Printed for the Translator, MDCCXXVII.
  • Kaempfer, Engelberts Weyl. D. M. und Hochgräfl. Lippischen Leibmedikus Geschichte und Beschreibung von Japan. Aus den Originalhandschriften des Verfassers herausgegeben von Christian Wilhelm Dohm [..]. Erster Band. Mit Kupfern und Charten. Lemgo, im Verlage der Meyerschen Buchhandlung, 1777; Zweyter und lezter Band. Mit Kupfern und Charten. Lemgo, im Verlage der Meyerschen Buchhandlung, 1779.
  • Engelbert Kaempfer: 1651 - 1716. Seltsames Asien (Amoenitates Exoticae). In Auswahl übersetzt von Karl Meier-Lemgo, Detmold 1933
  • "Engelbert Kaempfer: Am Hofe des persischen Großkönigs (1684-1685)" Ed. Walther Hinz, Stuttgart 1984.

Literature on E. Kaempfer[edit]

  • Kapitza, Peter: Engelbert Kaempfer und die europäische Aufklärung. Dem Andenken des Lemgoer Reisenden aus Anlaß seines 350. Geburtstags am 16. September 2001. – München: Iudicum Verlag, 2002.
  • Haberland, Detlef (Hrsg.), Engelbert Kaempfer - Werk und Wirkung.Stuttgart, Franz Steiner, 1993.
  • Haberland, Detlef (Hrsg.): Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716): ein Gelehrtenleben zwischen Tradition und Innovation. Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 2005.
  • David Mervart. "A closed country in the open seas: Engelbert Kaempfer's Japanese solution for European modernity's predicament," History of European Ideas, 35,3 (2009), 321-329.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Suarez, Thomas (1999) Early Mapping of Southeast Asia Tuttle Publishing ISBN 962-593-470-7 p.30
  2. ^ Michel, Wolfgang. "On Engelbert Kaempfer's "Ginkgo" (revised version)". Kyushu University. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  3. ^ W Michel: Glimpses of medicine and pharmaceutics in early Japanese-German intercourse. International Medical Society of Japan (ed.): The Dawn of Modern Japanese Medicine and Pharmaceuticals - The 150th Anniversary Edition of Japan-German Exchange. Tokyo 2011, pp. 72-94. (ISBN 978-4-9903313-1-3)
  4. ^ British Museum Collection [1]
  5. ^ "Author Query for 'Kaempf.'". International Plant Names Index. 


External links[edit]

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.