Like Serge Elisséeff, Baron Alexander von Staël-Holstein was an émigré of Czarist Russia displaced by the Bolshevik Revolution whose path led, by happenstance or fate, into an affiliation with Harvard University. The son of Baltic nobility, the Baron was raised on his family estate at Testama in what was then the Imperial Russian Prefecture of Estonia. Educated in Sanskrit at the Universities of Berlin and Halle, he then returned to Russia and assumed a position in the Indian section of the Asiatic Bureau of the Foreign Office. This position enabled him to arrange an extended stay in India, where he traveled widely and continued his studies of Sanskrit. In 1909, he was appointed to academic post at the Imperial University of St. Petersburg. During his tenure at St. Petersburg, he undertook intensive studies of the recent archaeological discoveries at Dunhuang, Turfan, and other Central Asian sites, and documented the role that Chinese historical sources, most notably the travel diaries of Xuanzang, played in facilitating these discoveries. He also developed a thorough understanding of Tibetan and utilized Chinese sources to illustrate otherwise unrecorded aspects of early Indian history.
During the First World War, radically reduced enrollments and teaching demands at the university made it possible for the Baron to be granted leave to study Tibetan and Mongolian documents in Beijing. What was to be a two year sabbatical became a permanent sojourn. He arrived in Beijing in 1916 and, apart from a year spent at Harvard, remained there until the end of his life. Deprived of his position and income by the Bolshevik revolution, he was granted citizenship by the newly established Estonian Republic but allowed to keep only a fraction of his family’s once vast estate. Deciding to remain in Beijing, he accepted an adjunct teaching position at Peking University (renamed Yenching University in 1927). Together with Paul Pelliot, Lucius Porter, and William Hung (the later two of whom were also faculty at same institution), he was invited in 1928 by the newly established Harvard-Yenching Institute to take up a visiting professorship at Harvard for the 1928-29 academic year. During this time, he taught the first course in the Tibetan language ever offered at Harvard, and also gave a graduate seminar on the Kāçyapaparivarta, an important Buddhist scripture that he annotated in Tibetan and Chinese and published in 1926. Upon returning to Beijing, he was appointed Professor of Central Asian Philology and Director of the Sino-Indian Institute at Yenching University, a position endowed with funds from the Harvard-Yenching Institute. He remained in this position until his death in 1937.
Throughout his career as a philologist, the Baron repeatedly emphasized the importance of Sanskrit and Tibetan for the reconstruction of ancient Chinese phonology. A large portion of his scholarly output consisted of thoroughly annotated translations and comparisons of Buddhist, Sanskrit, and Chinese Buddhist scriptures. He also worked in the field of Tibetan iconography, overseeing the photographic survey of two major Tibetan temples in Beijing and publishing a study of a pair of Tibetan devotional paintings (1932).