Carl Ditmar (Woldemar Friedrich Carl von Ditmar)

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Carl Ditmar (Woldemar Friedrich Carl von Ditmar) was the only child of Woldemar Friedrich Carl Ditmar (1794–1826) and Charlotte Ditmar née Stackelberg (1804–1880). He was born in Livonia in Fennern (now Vändra) on 27 August/8 September 1822. Carl’s father studied philosophy and law at the University of Dorpat from 1812 to 1815, then developed his skills from 1815–1817 in Koenigsberg (Ph.D. 1815), Berlin and Heidelberg Universities (J.D. 1817). During his stay in Germany, W. Ditmar was close with many famous German writers, such as Jean Paul (Richter), Elisabeth von der Recke, and Christoph Tidge, all of whom shaped Ditmar’s attitudes. After his return to Livonia, W. Ditmar taught Latin and criminal law at Tartu University in Livonia from 1818–1819, then moved to the settlement of Alt-Fennern. From 1819–1826, Ditmar was an assessor in the county court of Parnovski (now Pärnu) and collected and published Estonian folklore at home and abroad. No information about Ditmar’s mother’s life can be found.

In 1826, his father died suddenly, leaving four-year-old Carl in the care of his 22-year-old mother, who would devote her life to the education and care of her son. From August 1832 to June 1840, Ditmar studied at the Verro (now Võru) in the best Livonian private school around at the time, which was run by Henry Krummer. Only about a hundred children of the nobility were enrolled in five grade levels. Because the school’s teaching staff was associated with the Hernguter religious movement, theology and morality occupied important places in the curriculum. In addition to theology, Ditmar studied German, Russian, French, Latin, and Greek, as well as geometry, arithmetic, history, geography, and environmental science. Krummer described his performance in school thusly: “Although he didn’t find outstanding success in his subjects, he met his own standards and those of the school, which gave us hope that he was well-prepared for university studies.”

Ditmar studied at Dorpat from the beginning of January 1841 to 12 February 1844 and from 4 August 1844 to 27 August 1846. (Future St. Petersburg Academy scientists Leopold Ivanovich Schrenck and Carl Ivanovich Maximovich also studied at Dorpat then, and the three became lifelong friends.) Information about Ditmar’s life is now stored in the Estonian Historical Archives alongside files concerning many other Dorpat students, but unlike those others’ files his archives are fragmentary and may not accurately reflect what he studied, which teachers he studied with, and which courses he took. But you can read about Ditmar’s tumultuous student life, when he repeatedly spent his nights in jail and was suspended from the university in February 1844 for fighting with a Dorpat local.

Though Ditmar originally studied agricultural economics, after his reenrollment in August 1844 he dedicated himself to the study of mineralogy (he took his first mineralogy courses in 1882). He was well-prepared for this course of study, because his father had been very interested in the natural sciences. (During his own studies at the University of Dorpat, W. Ditmar was friends with K. M. Baer, with whom he compiled the first list of Livonian plants in 1813.) Even in early childhood, Ditmar showed an unusual interest in nature. According to L. Schrenck, Ditmar was first coached in mineralogy by the famous German geologist Herman Vilgelmovich Abich, who was full professor of mineralogy at the University of Dorpat from 1842 to 1844. In 1844, however, Abich left for the Caucasus to conduct geological studies. While living in the Caucasus, Abich did not forget about his former students. In spring 1846, Abich invited Ditmar and others to participate in his fieldwork. Ditmar declined so he could finish at university.

Ditmar continued his geology studies at Dorpat under the guidance of paleontologist and zoologist Hermann Martin Asmuss, who administered Ditmar’s final exams on geology, mineralogy, and paleontology. Ditmar’s final paper was a history of geology in the Baltic provinces titled “Versuch einer historischen Entwickelung der geognostischen, paleontologischen und oryktognosischen Kenntnisse von Liv-, Ehst-, und Curland”. After defending his dissertation, Ditmar was awarded a master’s degree from the Department of Philosophy. Newly graduated from the University of Dorpat, he decided to travel and continue his education in Europe. From 1846 to 1848, he traveled to Germany, Italy, France, and Switzerland and audited mineralogy courses at the famous Freiberg Mining Academy and Leipzig and Berlin Universities.

In late 1848, Ditmar returned to Livonia, then left for St. Petersburg. He carried a letter from Alexander Ivanovich Schrenck (older brother of L. Schrenck) to Aleksandr Fedorovich Middendorf, the adjunct of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. In it, Schrenck described Ditmar as a close friend, educated mineralogist, and fascinating speaker. Middendorf then kept in touch with Ditmar during his travels through Siberia to the Kamchatka peninsula and contributed to the publication of Ditmar’s articles in the St. Petersburg Academy of Science’s “Bulletin”. During 1851 to 1854, Ditmar traveled to the Kamchatka and visited the Taigonos peninsula (he completed about nine of these extensive trips). In 1855–1856, he led a short geographical survey of the Amur River region.

In 1851, Ditmar received a letter on Kamchatka from his mother that would largely determine his future. His mother reported that she’d bought her son a Livonian estate, Kerro (now Kyaru) in Fennern. This is probably the reason that Ditmar hurried back to Livonia after his expedition was over in 1856. In February 1858, Ditmar married Wilhelmina Stackelberg (1837–1929). As a result of this union, which contemporaries considered harmonious and loving, four daughters were born: Anna Carolina Wilhelmina (1858–1936), later to inherit the Kerro estate, Martha Charlotte (born 1860), Anna Maria Elizabeth (b. 1862), and Minna Jeanette (1864–1882).

Life as a landowner provided Ditmar with income, but it did not give him time to process and publish his notes and articles on the geology of Kamchatka and ethnography of its indigenous peoples that he wrote during his travels. From the obituaries published after Ditmar’s death, it appears that while living on Kerro (1856–1877) he actively managed its forests, purchased steam engines, and served as a judge in Pernovsky regional court and as a school inspector. In addition, he cared for the people who worked in his estate and created the first boarding school in Livonia for them.

In the early 1880s, Ditmar began to experience heart troubles, and he increasingly spent his winters in Dorpat. In fact, Ditmar spent most of 1887–1892 there. One obituary noted that in Dorpat Ditmar “renewed his long-standing love for science.” At that time, Ditmar finally published his work on his journey to Kamchatka (35 years after his return). He became an active full member of the Scientific Society of Estonia, the Dorpat Society of Naturalists and the Geographical Society. By the end of his life, he financed the construction of a network of meteorological stations in Estonia, Livonia, and Courland and measured the amount of precipitation from the Kerro observation point. Ditmar died in Dorpat on 25/13 April 1892 and is buried in the Raadi cemetery.

Ditmar’s contemporaries spoke of him as a fair, motivated, humane, and lovable person with a good sense of humor. They particularly admired his eloquence; his speech was full of drama, rich description, and metaphor. Ditmar’s writing was also masterful, which brought great success to his travel notes among scientific and educated circles.

Ditmar’s records of his time on Kamchatka were crucial to increasing scientific understanding of this part of the world. Scientists used his research during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Ditmar made a great contribution to the study of Kamchatka, and his collection of diaries is highly regarded to this day. In his memory, twentieth-century scientists named Ditmar Volcano (1,297 m), the collapsed volcanic caldera Bakening first observed by Ditmar (Svyatlovsky, 1956), and one species of plants (Рlаtanthera ditmariana).