Lomonosov Issues the First Catalog of Minerals

Soon after returning from scientific studies in Germany, Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov began sorting and cataloging the mineral cabinet of the Kunstkammer in St. Petersburg. His resulting catalog of more than thirty-five hundred mineral specimens was published in 1745.

Summary of Event

The history of the A. E. Fersman Mineralogical Museum, one of the finest such museums in the world, begins with Czar Peter the Great’s interest in science and his desire to bring science to the attention of the Russian people. By the close of the seventeenth century, Peter started collecting unusual biological and anatomical specimens, sparked by his first trip to Europe in 1679. He kept these specimens in what was then known as a Kunstkammer, Kunstkammeren (cabinets of curiosities) German for “cabinet of curiosities.” [kw]Lomonosov Issues the First Catalog of Minerals (1745)
[kw]Minerals, Lomonosov Issues the First Catalog of (1745)
[kw]Catalog of Minerals, Lomonosov Issues the First (1745)
[kw]First Catalog of Minerals, Lomonosov Issues the (1745)
[kw]Issues the First Catalog of Minerals, Lomonosov (1745)
[g]Russia;1745: Lomonosov Issues the First Catalog of Minerals[1120]
[c]Geology;1745: Lomonosov Issues the First Catalog of Minerals[1120]
[c]Science and technology;1745: Lomonosov Issues the First Catalog of Minerals[1120]
Lomonosov, Mikhail Vasilyevich
Peter the Great
Elizabeth Petrovna
Pallas, Peter Simon

In 1703, as part of Peter’s desire to modernize and westernize Russia, Westernization;Russia he began construction of his new capital of St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea. He was eager to show his Kunstkammer to ordinary Russians, to educate them, to stimulate their interest in Western science, and to impress them with the knowledge, resources, and wealth of their monarch. The cabinet thus began to be exhibited to visitors in Kikin’s Palace, St. Petersburg, in 1714. In 1716, a collection of 1,195 mineral specimens was purchased from Dr. I. Gotvald, a physician in Gdańsk, as the base of a mineralogical collection called the Mineral Cabinet. Mineral Cabinet Items of geological interest that Peter received as gifts from foreign leaders were added to the Mineral Cabinet. These included a 16-centimeter-long specimen of native silver wire known as the Silver Horn, given to him by the king of Sweden in 1718.

Peter the Great founded the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, Russia[Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences] in 1724. Members of the academy were actively recruited from various European countries, especially Germany. The Kunstkammer was formally put in the control of the Academy of Sciences. Mining companies throughout Russia sent samples to the Kunstkammer’s Mineral Cabinet, and by the early 1740’s, the collection included more than three thousand minerals, fossils, gems, and rocks. The responsibility for curating the Mineral Cabinet had fallen to Johann Gmelin, Gmelin, Johann a German scientist, who had left St. Petersburg to participate in a Siberian expedition lasting from 1733-1743.

The Russian scientist Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov returned to his native country in 1741. He had spent several years studying abroad and had received degrees in metallurgy at the University of Marburg and in mining engineering at the University of Freiburg, Austria. Lomonosov had returned to teach chemistry at the University of St. Petersburg, while Gmelin was still away on his Siberian expedition. Lomonosov was quickly made a member of St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences and appointed director of the Mineral Cabinet.

In 1742, Lomonosov was imprisoned for views hostile to the aristocracy and objections to certain academy policies. He continued to work while imprisoned and wrote two poems dedicated to Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, who decided to free him early in 1743. After his release from prison, Lomonosov resumed his duties as director of the Mineral Cabinet, cataloged the entire thirty-five-hundred-specimen collection, and published the results in 1745 under the auspices of the Russian academy. This was a precedent-setting accomplishment, in that it was the first research paper in mineralogy to be published by the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences.

Lomonosov’s catalog helped establish the reputation of St. Petersburg’s Kunstkammer as one of a very few public museums Museums;Russia in Europe. (Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum was founded in 1683; the British Museum would not be founded until 1753.) The catalog played an important role in establishing the Kunstkammer’s reputation as more than a repository of bizarre anatomical specimens. It also demonstrated Lomonosov’s credentials as a learned Russian scientist affiliated with the Kunstkammer.

In addition to producing the catalog of the Mineral Cabinet, Lomonosov directed construction of Russia’s first chemical laboratory, where he kept records of the measure, weight, and composition of various substances. Lomonosov recognized the importance of studying pure metals and salts. He believed that minerals were mixtures of primary particles (now referred to as atoms) and that their structure, color, and weight were important. Lomonosov was the first scientist to establish that amber, peat, and coal arose from plant remains. His chemical analysis of amber showed that its specific gravity was identical to that of pine resin. He also separated water from amber, which produced an odor associated with growing plants.

Lomonosov was interested in the common genesis of related minerals, a concept now known as paragenesis. Paragenesis (mineral genesis) Over the next 250 years, considerable work on paragenesis would be conducted under the auspices of the academy. He was also interested in the crystallographic properties of minerals and recorded crystal interfacial angles. He wrote a paper on the geometric arrangements of ideal spheres in crystal lattices.

In 1747, a damaging fire swept through the Kunstkammer, and only the Mineral Cabinet’s most valuable specimens (including the Silver Horn) were saved. Specimens continued to arrive, however. The first meteorite, the 687-kilogram, stony iron Pallasovo Zheleso (Pallas’s Iron) Meteorites was sent from Medvedevo (Siberia) in 1762 and arrived in St. Petersburg in 1772. This meteorite was acquired on a Siberian expedition by Peter Simon Pallas and, after its arrival at the Mineral Cabinet, was studied by academician Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni, Chladni, Ernst Florens Friedrich who realized that its unique composition of olivine and nickel iron was extraterrestrial. All meteorites of this compositional type are now referred to as pallasites.

After the Mineral Cabinet was established in its restored building, Pallas, then its director, had a new catalog of the collection prepared in 1789. The Mineral Cabinet contained about twenty thousand specimens in 1836. Early in the twentieth century, specimens in the Mineral Cabinet were divided into five collections: the Systematic Collection (more than ninety thousand specimens, showing crystallographic and mineralogical features), the Crystal Collection (more than thirty-one thousand specimens, representing mineral associations and ore types), the Location Collection, the Pseudomorph Collection (containing examples of crystallogenesis under various conditions), and the Gems and Stone Art Collection (including thirty items designed by Peter Carl Fabergé Fabergé, Peter Carl and handcrafted from semiprecious gemstones). The Meteorite Collection includes more than 447 specimens from various sites in Russia and all over the world, including a large collection of tektites, natural glass objects sometimes associated with meteorites.


Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov was the first Russian-born scientist to become a member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. By publishing a catalog of the Mineral Cabinet, detailing the geological contents of the Kunstkammer, he was able to place Russian mineralogy at the forefront of European science. As museums outside Russia were later established, mineral collections were displayed following the Mineral Cabinet’s precedent. Lomonosov worked for many years at the Kunstkammer, and the Lomonosov Museum Lomonosov Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia) was founded there in 1947. This museum was dedicated to the early years of the Academy of Sciences, and it included a display re-creating Lomonosov’s office and laboratory.

Over the two centuries following the fire that almost destroyed it, the Mineral Cabinet grew steadily. Following the 1919 Russian Revolution, the Mineral Cabinet was placed under the direction of A. E. Fersman. It was at this time that the museum acquired Fabergé’s collection, as well as several other private collections. The Mineral Cabinet moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1934; its contents, then estimated to include eighty thousand specimens, filled thirty railroad cars. Relocation was completed to host the Seventeenth International Geological Congress in Moscow in 1937. The museum was renamed to honor Fersman, its longtime director, in 1955. The museum building was reconstructed in preparation for the Twenty-Seventh International Geological Congress, held in Moscow in 1984.

Between 1772 and 1996, one meteorite type (pallasite) and thirty-two mineral species were named in honor of staff members of the Mineral Cabinet. The minerals lomosovite and lomosovite-beta were named in honor of Lomonosov. In 2000, an oxalate mineral discovered in the Chelkar salt dome in Kazakhstan was named “novgorodovaite” after the current director, Margarita Ivanovna Novgorodova.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the A. E. Fersman Mineralogical Museum housed one of the most complete mineral collections in the world, including more than twenty-three hundred of about four thousand known mineral species. Its collection has been curated using Dana’s Mineralogical Classification. About ten thousand of its specimens are viewable on the World Wide Web. Its scientists continue in Mikhail Lomonosov’s tradition of mineralogical research and publication.

Further Reading

  • Fersman, A. E. Geochemistry for Everyone. Moscow: Foreign Languages, 1958. A posthumously published book that provides a look at the great esteem in which Lomonosov was held by his successors and his enormous influence on the science of mineralogy. Fersman, a preeminent geochemist, discusses the importance of geology in people’s everyday lives in a book written especially for high school students, which includes many references to the Mineral Cabinet and its successor, the Fersman Museum.
  • Generalov, Mikhail. “A. E. Fersman Mineralogical Museum: An Embassy of the Mineral Kingdom in Russia.” Rocks and Minerals 76, no. 1 (January/February, 2001): 17-21. An examination of the Fersman Museum’s collection of minerals from the vast Russian landscape.
  • Popova, V. I., et al. “Murzinka: Alabasha Pegmatite Field.” Mineralogical Almanac 5 (2002). The gem-laden Alabasha pegmatite field was studied by A. E. Fersman in the early 1920’s, and its history, geology, and mineralogy are discussed in a magazine format, laden with color photos of crystalline mineral specimens from the Fersman Museum.
  • Rundqvist, Dmitrii V. Mineral Collections of Russia, Part II: Twelve Museum Collections. Vol 3. in Mineralogical Almanac. Moscow: Ocean Pictures, 2000. This book contains a twenty-five-page essay on mineralogical collections in the Russian Empire from the eighteenth to the twentieth century.

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