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Finnish Scientist on Research Mission in America

It seems strange that the first scientific research in the vegetable kingdom of America should have been made by a Finn, and that he should have published the first scientific work on that subject. This man was Peter Kalm, Professor of Economics and Natural History at the University of Abo. He had studied under Linné, the great scientist and teacher in the field of botany at the University of Upsala, and it was Linné who recommended Peter Kalm to be sent to North America to study the vegetation of this new land, in the same latitudes as the Northern Countries of Europe, in order to determine whether the useful plants which thrive in America could be raised successfully in Sweden and Finland.

Professor Kalm landed at Philadelphia on September 15th, 1748, after spending about six months in England to improve his English and also to secure letters of introduction to some of the noted men of America. Among several others he had a letter to Benjamin Franklin, who helped the investigator from Finland in many ways - with advice and other assistance.

Kalm remained in America for two and a half years, traveling in all directions through the territory which now forms the states of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and also made two trips into Canada, partly through sections which were inhabited by Indians in their own settlements. He was the first noted scientist to see Niagara Falls and to bring word of this wonder of nature to Europe. He covered an immense territory through which traveling in those times was both difficult and dangerous. He studied the nature and plant growth everywhere and was infinitely interested in the vegetation of the new country.

As has been already mentioned, Professor Kalm remained here for two and a half years and left America with many regrets, as he said, "because, in the three kingdoms of nature here, he discovered so very many things that he did not have time to study." He returned to Stockholm on June 3rd, 1751, bringing with him an immense collection of dried and also live plants; also seeds, and in addition, some clams, insects and other animals. He had often - during his travels - sent Professor Linné seeds which were planted in Upsala for experimental purposes.

Professor Linné was more than pleased with the result of Kalm's research work. He had had great expectations and they were really realized. Suddenly there was a conception of the nature, and particularly of the vegetation of North America. The scientific treatment of the collection was started by Linné himself, while Kalm published his work which explained the planting, care and usage of 126 different species of plants. Seeds were distributed free of cost to those who were willing to plant these American vegetables.

During his travels Kalm had also visited the Finnish settlement which had been established in Delaware, about 100 years earlier, but the residents had already then become dissolved with the rest of the population to such an extent that but few could even speak Finnish. But these first Finnish residents had left their mark on the community, many prominent families being descendants of these pioneers; John Morton, for instance, who thirty years after Kalm's visit, was among those to sign the American Declaration of Independence.

On his arrival in Finland, Kalm began to prepare for publication the extensive work on his travels, the "Trip to North America," the first part of which was published in 1753, the second in 1756, and the third in 1761. This work became so well known that it was translated into English, German, and Dutch, also parts were translated into French. The fourth part was never published and the manuscript was destroyed in the Abo fire. The original notes have been saved, however, and it is intended to write the fourth part on the basis of these. Kalm had also planned a work on the Canadian plants (Flora Canadensis), but it was never carried out. In his books on his travels, Kalm gives us such detailed illustrations of the nature, economic conditions and the civilization in different sections of America, that these books are considered an authority even to-day on conditions at that period; particularly on account of the fact that he is conscientious and unprejudiced in his criticism and information.

Illustrative of his ability as a critic of conditions is the prediction which he made in his book that the English colonies in America would declare their independence within a short time. This prediction was fulfilled within 25 years.

Peter Kalm was one of the most prominent men of the northern countries of Europe; a pioneer in his field. He was offered a professorship in the St. Petersburg Academy of Science but he would not accept it because he wanted to devote his work to his native land, Finland.

Till his death, he often recalled America, which had offered him so much that was new for examination. If the opportunity had presented itself he would eventually have made a new trip to this country to continue and consummate the research work which he had started here.

Published in Finland Review, 1919:1, p. 27-29.

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