Steller was born in Windheim, Franconia, on 10th March, 1709 as son of choirmaster Johann Jakob Stöller. He studied theology and the natural sciences, and specialized in medicine and botany. Germany could not offer him opportunities for an appropriate career, he therefore applied for a post as physician in the Russian army. As the German letter 'ö' had no Russian equivalent, he changed his name to Steller.
1737 he was appointed adjunct of natural sciences by the Petersburg Academy of Sciences, and was ordered to join the Great Nordic Expedition in Kamchatka, reporting to the German naturalist Johann Georg Gmelin.
In February 1741 Vitus Bering urged him to become member St. Peter crew for the sea voyage to America as the ship's medicus and as (unofficial) naturalist.
Steller's personality has been described quite contradictory in various biographical papers. Golder wrote 1925:
"Steller was an interesting man and a great scientist ... He was blessed with a retentive memory, a keen power of observation, and an ability to generalize and to interpret his data."
Steller obviously was of good health, could live modestly under difficult and primitive conditions. He was in great sympathy with the native population, which suffered greatly under the Russian colonialists - still he was looking down on both, feeling superior.
Steller represented a new generation of naturalists. While moving around he lived off the country and with the aboriginal people. His temporary superior Gmelin reported*)after Hintzsche 1996, S. 97
"He is never annoyed with his primitive way of life; he is always in good mood, and the more untidy things are around him the happier he is getting. He is never tired and always punctual in his daily work. He can stay without food for a whole day, if only he can achieve something worthy."
The unfortunate voyage to America is described in chapter "the Discovery" above. Thereafter Steller spent several years in Kamchatka, finishing his "Beschreibung von dem Lande Kamtschatka". His last months were strenuous. He was accused to have incited native tribes, but had been dismissed of this accusation. At the end he was unnerved, suspicious and depressive. He suffered a heavy attack of fever on his way back to Europe, and the German physician Lau, practicing in Tjumen, could not save his life.
Steller died, on 12 November 1746, at the age of 37 years. No picture of him exists. His grave was washed away by a flood.