Countess Yekaterina Vorontsova (1744-1810) was the daughter of a very well connected Russian family. Yekaterina married Prince Mikhail Dashkov in 1759, becoming Princess Dashkov at just 15 years old. Their marriage was short, as the Prince passed away five years later from pneumonia.
Living in Moscow, with a high status, money, and no ties, the Princess had opportunities not really available for other men or women in the 1700s: time (and the money) to persue what she wanted. With a quick mind and a good education, she went on to study Maths at the University of Moscow. But it wasn’t her education that gave her the opportunism she desired. It was her rather volatile relationship with a Queen.
A young and politically-minded Princess Daskova took a part in raising Catherine 1’s granddaughter, the Grand Duchess Catherine Alexeyevna to the Throne. The Grand Duchess would jointly rule as Catherine 1 of Russia in 1724, and after the death of her husband Peter, she would be the first woman to rule Russia in 1762. Although close, the Queen and the Princess both had very strong personalities that often clashed. It wasn’t long that Princess Dashkova asked for permission to travel abroad, which she was granted. Perhaps like close sisters they may have gotten a little cabin fever while living under each other’s feet, for they both remained good friends while the Princess was on her travels.
She was well received in France and Britain through her reputation, and presumably her status of ‘Princess’. She appears to have had no trouble meeting whomever she wanted to: she met Benjamin Franklin when she was 37, and they became good friends – so good in fact, that Franklin, invited her to join the American Philosophical Society, the first woman member, and the only woman member for the next 80 years.
Returning to Russia in 1782, her importance had grown. She was appointed Director of the Imperial Academy of Arts and Sciences (the Russian Academy of Sciences), where she was instrumental in ensuring that Russian science was brought up to a professional level.
After a very grand life, a new emperor, Emperor Paul, had Princess Dashkova exiled from the capital due to her strong political ties. She had spent her life living in luxury, only to spend the last decade living in poverty in a small village outside St. Petersburg, though she was allowed to return to live her final few years in her home in Moscow.
But how was this Princess a Trowelblazer? Although Dashkova didn’t undertake her own research or publish papers, she understood science. As President of the Imperial Academy of Arts and Sciences, she advanced knowledge and was a very important figure in the birth of Russian science.
And, although she didn’t know it, she discovered a unicorn.
On her adventures across Russia and Europe, Princess Dashkova collected many strange objects. This became her ‘Cabinet of Natural History and other Curiosities’. The collection was donated to Moscow University in 1807.
One object that was recorded was examined by Johann Gotthelf Fischer von Waldheim. von Waldheim examine a fossil fragment that belong to the jaw of an animal and still held three teeth. He named an entirely new genus based on this one jaw, of an extinct, massive rhinoceros, Elasmotherium. The species was named a year later, so the jaw belonged to Elasmotherium sibiricum. The label with the specimen reads:
“Elasmotherium sibiricum Fischer, left part of a mandible from Siberia presented by the princess E. Dashkova. Listozub. Original. For the work by Fischer.”
There is no information about where exactly the jaw fragment was found, or how she acquired it. As was typical of early collections of ‘curiosities’ objects were amassed not for advancing knowledge, but because they looked pleasing. Since the naming of this new species in 1808, many more fossils have been discovered. The jaw the Princess had found belonged to a species of extinct rhinoceros, that was specially adapted for cold climates and only became extinct 50,000 years ago. This was the biggest rhinoceros to have ever walked the Earth.
This rhino was different from those you are familiar with. It had slightly longer, more slender legs than those alive today, and an enormous horn. Some estimate that it could have been over 2 meters long (longer than an adult human!). These features have suggested links to Siberian and Chinese to Elasmotherium sibiricum and the unicorn.
The Princess unknowingly unveiled a whole new genus of rhinoceros to the world-and the legend of the Unicorn leading to speculations that Elasmotherium survived until recent times.
Post by Jan Freedman.
Portrait of Yekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova by Dmitry Levitsky, 1784. Public domain.