Engelbert Kaempfer

Engelbert Kaempfer

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Engelbert Kaempfer (September 16, 1651 – November 2, 1716), a German naturalist and physician is 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.

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. 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".

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.

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

At Kaempfer's death his mostly unpublished manuscripts were purchased by Sir Hans Sloane, and conveyed to England.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.