Tag Archives: history of science

Unsavoury scientific pasts

This weekend I wrote an article for the BES Bulletin in which I referred to an intriguing character, Otto Schultz-Kampfhenkel (1910–1989). He was a German geographer, explorer and film-maker, whose lasting legacy was to have founded an institute producing educational films for schools on global matters (it still does). He also established a field centre in Portugal where I’ve taught and carried out some research, which is how his name first came to my attention.

Schultz-Kampfhenkel was well-known for his 1933 book Das Dschungel rief (The Jungle Cried), based on his expedition to Liberia, and a film Rätsel der Urwaldhölle (Riddle of the Jungle) from his 1937–37 expedition on the Amazon. Both are very much products of their time and, while no doubt valuable for their anthropological records and natural history observations, they are likely to be uncomfortable for modern audiences. One of the main reasons for this is that Schultz-Kampfhenkel was a Nazi.


A photo from the 1935–37 expedition on the Brazilian Amazon. I can find no evidence that Schultz-Kampfhenkel appears in this image; only that this was the team which he led, and clearly the flag that they carried.

Examining the careers of European cultural, academic and scientific figures of the mid-20th century always carries some trepidation. Many made compromises in order to protect themselves or their families; others found ways to manipulate the system to advance their own interests, regardless of their own personal affinities. My own family history contains examples, and it’s important to not make too many moral judgements from a distance that is now not only historical but also social and cultural. We cannot know how we would have acted in such circumstances; go back far enough and all of us are descended from murderers.

Such equivocation is unnecessary with Schultz-Kampfhenkel, who by all accounts appears to have been an enthusiastic fascist and collaborator with the wartime regime. One of his core activities was to set up a group of scientists to advise the German war effort. This included geologists, geographers, environmental scientists, foresters and, to my surprise, a botanist: Heinz Ellenberg (1913–1997), one the foremost vegetation ecologists of the mid-20th century. His works on the formation and classification of plant communities remain some of the most important contributions in the history of the field. Together they produced military maps for assessment of terrain and landscapes, based on both aerial photography and field surveys.

We of course know more of Ellenberg from his later career; after the war he worked with  Heinrich Walter in Stuttgart-Hohenheim*, and was later appointed as director of the Geobotanical Institute at ETH Zurich where he led the conceptual development of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme, one of the most transformative innovations in conservation policy. To my mind, however, Ellenberg’s greatest contribution was the book Vegetation Mitteleuropas mit den Alpen in ökologischer, dynamischer und historischer Sicht (first edition 1963, with the last produced by Ellenberg himself in 1996). This has sat on my bookshelf (in translation) for 20 years now, and I still periodically refer to it as a trove of observations, measurements and insights. There is so much data in there that would be unpublishable in the modern world, even unthinkable that someone would bother to collect it (or to fund efforts to do so), and yet, as time goes on, this record of the vegetation of Europe in the 20th century becomes ever more valuable.

Why does Ellenberg’s name on the list of distinguished academic contributors to the German war effort matter? Perhaps it shouldn’t. Scientific facts are not in themselves political, even if scientists themselves are, as is often their funding, as well as the uses to which their work is put. Stripped of its political motivations, we can still learn from studies arising from even the most distasteful of sources. More to the point, Ellenberg’s most important academic contributions all came long after the war. I know a number of emeritus vegetation ecologists in Germany and the UK who must have met Ellenberg in person. Some of them even worked with him. Perhaps my discovery would not be news to them; they could even provide some clarificatory context to assuage my discomfort. Or, as with many of that generation, maybe it never came up in conversation.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked to find this skeleton in Ellenberg’s closet, although what surprises me more is not that a man of his age was involved in the war effort, but rather that it was in his capacity as plant ecologist. I have my own strong political opinions as a socialist and committed anti-fascist. I’d like to think that none of this inflects my work (at least not in content, although whether it does in conduct is a different matter). Nor would I expect anyone reading my work to judge its value through that prism. Nevertheless, were there some way in which I could use my expertise to advance the causes I believe in, I would have no hesitation**.  None of us are only scientists. Was the same true of Ellenberg?

Learning the about the histories of influential scientists can have mixed results. Some have risen in my estimation as I’ve discovered more about their exploits (like the legendary botanist Richard Evan Schultes); others I can continue to admire while not wishing to spend any time in their company (see the recent Robert Trivers autobiography), while some turn out to have been surprisingly boring. We care about them as people because we are social creatures (mostly), but this should have no bearing on our estimation of their contributions to science. Nevertheless, however hard I try to rationalise it away, finding Ellenberg’s name on such a list has left a bad taste in my mouth. One of the giants of the field just became, for me, much shorter.

* Walter’s foundational work from the 1970s Die Vegetation der Erde in Öko-physiologischer Betrachtung was still core reading when I was an undergraduate in the 90s, and remains in print in the form of Breckle’s much-updated edition.

** I don’t see right now how my work on forest structural organisation is going to lead to a radical rebalancing of the social contract between our government its people, but if you can see a way then let me know, and quickly — we have an election coming up.


That Glorious Forest



There’s no denying that Sir Ghillean Prance FRS is one of the most distinguished tropical botanists alive today. His contributions to the scientific literature have been immense, particularly regarding the floral biogeography of Amazonia, not to mention numerous taxonomic identifications and specimens distributed in herbaria throughout the world. For over ten years he was the director of Kew Gardens, one of the foremost centres of plant research and discovery. Moreover, he has conducted 56 expeditions to South America over a long career, with recollections of these forests and the societies contained within them that date back before the incursions of the modern world. His is a story which deserves to be told.

I love reading the memoirs of the great exploratory botanists*. The hardships they willingly accepted in pursuit of plants are an inspiration, along with the thrill of true discovery at a time when so many parts of the globe could only be reached through daring exploits. I’ve been on my fair share of remote expeditions, but in these days of long-haul flights, widespread airports, tarmacked roads and satellite phones, the challenge is now more one of escaping modernity than coping without it. Reading the exploits of our predecessors, before health and safety became the deadening preoccupation of adventurers, is a refreshing antidote.

With such easy material, combined with abundant photographic records, Prance could hardly fail to produce an engaging account of his career in the tropics. And yet… it’s not written in the most gripping style. The opening chapters of That Glorious Forest read something like a school pupil’s summer diary, dominated by mundane observations interspersed with trivial details and almost entirely stripped of the passion and enthusiasm that must surely have driven his work and made such hardships endurable. To take one incident as an example, Prance once found himself spending the night in a jail cell in a remote border town. The potential for a ripping yarn gets even better, as he only ended up there after a fraught flight across the Amazon forest in a dilapidated DC-8 during which first one, then the second engine failed, necessitating an emergency landing. Stranded in a small town with little accommodation, the only place to house them for a night was the local jail. This story would be gold to a biographer. Yet we are told nothing about the reactions of the people on the plane, their emotions, the responses of the people on the ground. Were there prisoners in other cells at the time? How well did everyone manage to sleep? Instead we are told only the sparest details, a plot outline instead of a hair-raising adventure. For once I found myself longing for more information rather than less.

What remains isn’t so much an absorbing account of derring-do in the name of science, but a much-condensed summary, combined with a desire to name and thank everyone with whom his path has crossed. The latter is noble, even endearing, but the general reader gains little from it. As I can vouchsafe from my own expeditions, the most entertaining stories usually derive from the more unpleasant people one ends up encountering, and the same is true here.

If you’re looking for peril, it’s most often associated with a botanist’s greatest fear: plant presses catching fire. The potential loss of hard-won specimens is what keeps any field collector awake at night. I appreciated the details of the plants collected and the stories behind them — these are among the best bits, often infused with emotion. A botanist to the end, each chapter concludes with the accession numbers of all specimens collected over the course of the events described, along with the type specimens for all new species discovered. This makes up an impressive tally.


Ghillean Prance inspecting the underside of a leaf of Victoria amazonica

As for the adventures themselves, I began to gain the impression that each expedition had been described in the manner of a botanical specimen, each inflorescence reduced to a floral formula; flattened, dessicated and inspected for its features alone. Having never met Prance, I have no idea whether this is typical of either the man or his attitude to life, but given how keen I was to enjoy this book, I was disappointed by the dry writing style. A telling comment appears halfway through, in a passing remark about having met the author Redmond O’Hanlon, whose tales of travels with the Yanomani of Venezuala are one of the great accounts of this region. “I commented that I would be really ashamed to run an expedition like that, but that as a writer, he had to have so many misfortunes to make a good story!” This seems doubly unfair, as there are no shortage of mishaps in Prance’s own travels, but also because these do not in themselves make for a readable account. The photos and illustrations throughout are wonderful, and the production quality is excellent, making it great value for $69. It’s not meant as a coffee-table book though, and therefore doesn’t quite fit that niche either.

That said, there are some genuinely interesting anecdotes. A field trip to collect fruitflies with the great geneticist Dobzhansky was enlivened by his insistence on carrying mashed bananas all the way across Brazil to the Yanomani, whose staple crop is… bananas. He appears to have been a demanding and eccentric guest, though is thought of affectionately enough to be called ‘Dobbie’ throughout.

Some of the best passages involve Prance’s encounters and working relationship with forest-dwelling people. On meeting the Yanomani: “They were curious about us and were stroking my hairy arms and chest, making their clicking noises of appreciation. When they wanted to see more, I just stripped completely and their curiosity was satisfied.” If this sounds strange, then it’s worth remembering that the Yanomani spend their lives naked. One of the fungi they eat translates as hairy-arse fungus. Elsewhere there are intriguing ethnobotanical observations, whose value is underestimated by the modern scientific literature. For example, the Mak\’u people use the milky sap of a fig species (Naucleopsis mello-barretoi) as a poison for blowpipe darts. The toxin is a cardiac glycoside, only known to occur elsewhere in another genus of the Moraceae, and only in New Guinea — where the natives have similarly discovered its utility as  a hunting poison.

If you want to read a book documenting the ethnobotany of the neotropics, and the efforts of bold scientists to describe it, then Wade Davis’ magnificent memoir One River still leads the way. It is informed by his own personal account of travels in search of plants, interspersed with anecdotes and partial biographies of the legendary botanist Richard Evans Schultes and his distinguished student Tim Plowman. It’s a book which, had I read two decades earlier, would have changed the whole trajectory of my career. Schultes never wrote up his own memoirs, while Plowman died tragically young; it took Davis to transform the raw materials of their lives into an appealing narrative. Letting the human story drive the text only served to increase the thrill of the botanical chase behind it. By the end of That Glorious Forest I couldn’t help wishing that Prance had taken a similar approach.

* My next challenge is reading another memoir by a living legend of tropical taxonomy, this time from the Orient — Peter Ashton’s mammoth On the Forests of Tropical Asia. It’s 800 pages long and weighs a tonne though, so don’t expect the review to follow any time soon.