A German naturalist (1709-1746) who worked with the expedition of Vitus Bering in Siberia, where he collected and described numerous species, most famous of which is the Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas). This giant relative of the manatee becoming extinct shortly thereafter, once European settlers heard of it.
He also gave his name to the Steller's sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus, the largest kind of sealion), Steller's eider (Polysticta stelleri), Steller's sea aegle (Haliaeetus pelagicus), and the endangered Steller's albatross (Phoebastria albatrus, also called the short-tailed albatross). Among other things he described are the northern fur seal and the salmonberry.
Born in Windsheim on 10 March 1709, trained at Wittenberg and Halle universities, Steller originally went to Russia in 1737 to lecture at the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg. He also served as a doctor in the army.
In 1741 he took part in Bering's second expedition (called the Great Northern Expedition) as doctor, biologist, and geologist, going to Kamchatka and Alaska. He and Bering did not get on well. He was the first naturalist to visit Alaska, which was then Russian territory. They were shipwrecked on what is now known as Bering Island. Here he made a large collection; but had to abandon it. Bering and half the crew died; the others survived by, um, eating the large slow-moving beefy animals that were abundant on the island. Steller called them sea cows because of the flavour.
After this he got into trouble with the authorities, with spurious treason charges for freeing prisoners. Steller was in Tyumen in Siberia, on his way back to St Petersburg, when he died of fever on 12 November 1746. He left many valuable papers but few were in scientifically publishable form. In 1793 Peter Pallas, a fellow naturalist at St Petersburg, published Steller's journal of the expedition as Reise von Kamtschatka nach Amerika mit dem Commander-Kapitan Bering.
Recommended reading: sid's write-up on Steller's sea cow.