Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/March 1897/Sketch of John Gundlach

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PSM V50 D596 John Christopher Gundlach.jpg



By JUAN VILARÓ, M. D., A. M., Ph. D.,


THE words by which Sir William Jardine characterized Alexander Wilson may be equally well applied, with a slight change, to Gundlach, the Cuban naturalist. He "was the first who truly studied the birds of Cuba in their natural abodes from real observation; and his work will always remain an ever-to-be-admired testimony of enthusiasm and perseverance." Gundlach studied with equal completeness all the land and river fauna of Cuba and that of the sea, except the fishes, on which Poey was engaged.

John Christopher Gundlach was born July 17, 1810, at the University of Marburg, Hesse Cassel, where his father, Dr. John Gundlach, was Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. When the father died he left his five children a good name and a noble example; and the mother received a pension.

These resources, however, were not sufficient for so numerous a family. Great sacrifices were necessary if so many children were to be fittingly educated. The young students were compelled to devote their leisure moments to work, instead of the exercises of pleasure and recreation which were the privilege of their fellows. Henry became a doctor of medicine; Conrad, a Protestant minister; William, a guardian of the forests; and John accustomed himself, to use his own words, to "accept destiny in whatever shape it might present itself," and to do much while he spent little. He was in his ninth year when his elder brother returned from Cassel with a ready and practical knowledge of taxidermy. He used to watch the brother's work, closely and quietly following all the processes of his preparations. The boy was an industrious collector of insects all the while; and in the study and classification of his collections enjoyed the counsel and assistance of naturalists, who were glad to give him their encouragement. Those fruitful collecting excursions were the pastime of his youth. About this time the young man suffered a serious disaster from the accidental discharge of a shotgun, by which his nose was shattered, and he was permanently deprived of the sense of smell. The misfortune, however, had one comforting compensation, in that the student was thereby enabled to deal with subjects in extreme stages of decomposition as easily as if they had been entirely fresh. He gained an extensive reputation as a taxidermist, a practical demonstration of which was the fact that a captain residing in Marburg intrusted him with the preparation and mounting of his valuable collection of birds.

Gundlach's mother sought vainly to guide his steps through the mazes of theological studies; and although he at one time, in deference to her wishes, began a course, he was not destined to complete it. Dr. Maurice Herold, Professor of Zoölogy, offered him employment in the university as conservator and preparator—a position in which he had advantageous opportunities for prosecuting the embryological work in insects which he had undertaken. Enjoying as the son of a professor the privilege of gratuitous instruction, he was enabled, while assisting Dr. Herold and serving as his substitute, to take three successive courses in zoölogy. He obtained, in 1837, the degree of Doctor of Philosophy and Master of the Liberal Arts; while he had also been elected to the Society of Natural History of Cassel.

Gundlach was invited by Dr. Julius Hill, a Dutch physician, to visit Surinam, where a company had been organized for making collections; and by the Cuban, Carlos Booth, who had completed his studies at London and Cassel, to go with him to Cuba. He accepted the latter invitation, and, sailing from Hamburg early in November, 1838, landed at Havana, January 5, 1839.

He at once made a favorable impression in Cuba. He might have speculated in the results of his researches, but refused to do so, giving as the reason, when asked by the writer of this sketch, "Booth having incorporated me into his family, I had no expenses and could send these objects gratuitously to Cassel."

The venerable Simón de Cárdenas wrote of him at the time that "of a modesty equaled by none, he ever ignores the price of his works. Tolerant with all, he never criticises. He only knows how to give good advice. His amiable character is invariably the same. . . . That science fills his soul and heart is a fact that needs no demonstration. The impetuosity of violent passions is something entirely unknown to his nature, and for him there is nothing in the world but study and friendship."

Juan Clemente Zenea, in his Revista Habanera (1861), spoke of Gundlach's zeal and devotion to science, his modesty and unselfishness, in terms of the highest eulogy, saying, among other things: "For the last twenty years our richest planters have been disputing among themselves for the right and pleasure of giving him hospitality and attending to his needs, which are few, and he only cares for the study of science. . . . He is a naturalist as others are soldiers. . . . He is entirely unconscious of his distinction. He unassumingly communicates his vast knowledge to whoever may feel inclined to hear him, like a prophet inspired by a superior will."

He established himself with Booth at Cardenas, in 1841. During one of his excursions he shot a hummingbird, which he found to be of a new species and designated it after Mrs. Booth.

Up to that moment he had never collected for himself. He now decided, on the suggestion imparted to him by the study of that rare specimen, to form a Cuban collection. Removing, in 1846, to the "Refugio" farm, one mile from Cardenas, he deposited there his collections, which had acquired great value, and freely exhibited them to the numerous visitors who were attracted to the spot. Six weeks of the year 1850 were spent at San Juan de los Perros, on the coast of Cardenas, in collecting vertebrates, articulates, and mollusks, while the fishes were left to Poey.

At this period Gundlach formed a number of valuable scientific acquaintances and friendships. Señor Bias du Bouchet, assessor of Cardenas, made several visits to the Refugio, and a close association was formed between the two. Going to reside in Havana, thirteen years after his arrival in Cuba, Gundlach for the first time met Felipe Poey, whom Dr. Manuel Presas styles the true inaugurator of the new era of Cuban science, and whom he had before known only by correspondence. The greeting between the two was a warm one—"Animœ pars" (Part of my soul), exclaimed Gundlach; "Dimidia meœ" (Half of mine), responded Poey—and was the beginning of an intimacy which was cordial and lasting. In Havana he found, too, Juan Lembeye, the ornithologist, author of a little treatise on the birds of the island of Cuba,[1] whom he had known since 1846; Ramon Forns, Principal of the "Santa Teresa" School, another ornithologist; Antonio Fabre, Francisco A. Sanvalle, and Dr. Manuel Gandul; and a very pleasant circle of naturalists was formed for profitable intercourse. Very fruitful expeditions were made in 1855 to the mountain called the Pan of Guajaibón; and the encouragement of this success was an important factor in the development of a plan for exploring the Island of Pines. Dr. Nicolás Gutierez, Patricio Paz, and Poey found the means to carry out the idea, it being agreed that they should pay all the expenses and share with Gundlach the scientific harvest. The riches thus acquired stimulated desire, and the project of a new expedition to the east of Cuba was formed, with a view to the collection of mollusks, and particularly of the Helix imperator.

Gundlach started on his journey alone in June, 1856, and prosecuted it with an earnestness that nothing could dampen, and a determination that overcame every obstacle of bad roads, dense thickets and foliage, mountain ranges, the burning heat of the day and the cold of the night, tropical showers, high, waters, and mud up to the neck, with all the hardships they could inflict upon him. He went overland from Havana to Cienéga de Zapata (Zapata Swamp), thence to Caimanera and Cienfuegos. In September he passed through Trinidad, San Juan de Letran, Güinia de Soto, Araca with its great marsh, and other places, all of which were closely and attentively examined.

On the 22d of February of the following year he started from Casilda toward Manzanillo, thence to Bayamo, where he was entertained with true Cuban hospitality. Drawn by an irresistible desire to acquire more specimens of a very interesting mammal known locally as tejón, called almiqui by Poey and his successors, and scientifically named Solenodon cubanus (Peters), he traversed the Sierra Maestra. Another mammal, the Jutia andaráz (Capromys melanurus, Poey), of which he had obtained specimens from Dr. Yero, also attracted him thither. Besides having specimens of these species, he desired to trace them to their homes and follow them to their burrows, but his success was prevented by natural obstacles which he could not overcome. With the Yero brothers he went to Guisa, where he found in one of the caverns the interesting bat Monophyllus Redmanni, and many specimens of mollusks. Reaching Santiago de Cuba in December, 1857, he closely investigated its vicinity. He revisited Cabo de Cruz in April, 1858, in search of the tropical bird Phaëthon flavirostrus—called in Cuba rabijunco, from the two median rectrices that gracefully prolong its tail—which disappears from the place in the latter part of August or beginning of September and returns in February, and obtained very good specimens of it. In June of the same year he visited Caimanera, in the harbor of Guantánamo, for mollusks. At Zateras, in 1859, he met the botanist Charles Wright, of Connecticut, who had already collected a number of plants for Harvard University and had returned for new finds. The two explored in company, mutually aiding each other; and Wright acquired snails and insects and bird skins for the Smithsonian Institution, in return for which Gundlach had seeds and specimens of plants to send to Havana. He returned to Santiago de Cuba; visited Baracoa in May, where he went to the "Marianna" estate to see the famous branching palm; ascended the mountain called Yunque de Baracoa (Baracoa Anvil), where he discovered a number of insects and new species of mollusks; and went on by way of Gibara to Nuevitas, whence he passed to Puerto Principe, and finally arrived in Havana in August, 1859, three years and three months after his departure on the expedition.

Established again in the Cuban capital, Gundlach occupied himself with the systematic compilation of his collections. He described and published three new species of birds; sent the reptiles to Dr. Peters, of Berlin, for classification, and the land and river mollusks—which he had already himself partly named to—Dr. Pfeiffer, of Hesse Cassel; while he reserved the insects for German and North American specialists.

After other journeys to Vuelta Abajo, Gundlach decided to gather all his collections under one roof. He furnished for that purpose a room on the upper floor of the infirmary of the sugar estate "Fermina" (Bemba), where the valuable Cuban Museum of Natural History was installed during the holy week of 1864.[2] There all the zoölogical species, especially birds, were represented by specimens of both sexes, young and old, their eggs and nests, with cases of albinism and melanism and anomalous features, especially of the bill. In 1866 Gundlach prepared—arranging and packing—the specimens for the Cuban exhibit in the Paris Exposition of 1867. The exhibit included a collection of land and river mollusks, a Cuban herbarium, and a collection, no less valuable, of woods and textile plants; geological and mineralogical collections; sections of fossils; and other specimens of the products of the island. In it the collection of the Academy of Sciences of Havana was added to Gundlach's own.

The breaking out of the Cuban insurrection in 1868 made the continued exploration of the island impracticable, and Gundlach turned his eyes to Porto Rico. He visited that island in 1873, and traversed, investigated, and studied to great advantage the surroundings of Mayagüez, Aguadilla, Quebradillas, Arecibo, Guanica, Utuado, and Lares. The six months work done here did not, however, satisfy him, and he returned in 1875, when he also explored Jayuya, Vegabaja, and Bayamon. Receiving news of the burning by the rebels of some estates near the "Fermina" sugar plantation, he at once abandoned everything to go to the rescue of the museum, his only treasure.

In 1884 he started anew in the direction of Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo in search of certain birds and butterflies. Although he did not find the immediate object of his quest, his labor was rewarded by the acquisition of other specimens which speedily found their way to the university, the Institute of Havana, and other scientific centers. He returned in 1885, having with him, among other trophies of his enterprise, several good specimens of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a species which, thanks to the careless destructiveness of hunters, is becoming quite rare, and of the Papilio Gundlachianus. "Every trip to the mouth of the Aguadores River," he wrote to the author of this sketch, "had to be begun at half past five in the morning. It was there that the Papilio Gundlachianus flew. I had to walk two leagues, stand three hours, and then walk back two leagues more. The heat was unbearable." This Papilio is highly valued by students of Lepidoptera, and the specimens command a high price. It is not so large as the Papilio antimachus of Sierra Leone, but it enjoys the distinction of being the prettiest butterfly in America. A goodly number of swifts and large swallows were also in the collection. Gundlach made other journeys to the eastern province in 1885 and 1887, always collecting, always active and untiring, as if his seventy-six years, in spite of the arduous nature of his enterprises, had dealt lightly with him.

His unrivaled Cuban Museum established in the Havana Institute, still claimed and received his attention to the last moment of his working life. A hearty octogenarian, he continued to devote himself, as with his old-time energy, to improving it as far as possible. Assisted by kind friends, he went up daily to his place of work, first assiduously laboring and then recreating himself with his only treasure. Finally, in 1896, the end came. He was taken from the institute to his deathbed.

Gundlach's researches in Cuban fauna are so numerous that it would be extremely diflicult to record them all in a brief summary. He first published Contributions to Cuban Ornithology, 1854-1857. Then followed, in quick succession, Index generum Coleopterum, 1854; Molluscorum species Novæ, 1858; A Synoptic Conspectus of all the Birds observed in Cuba, published in the Journal für Ornithologie, 1861; A Review and Catalogue of the Cuban Birds, 1865; A Review and Catalogue of the Cuban Reptiles, 1867; New Contributions to Cuban Ornithology, in the Journal für Ornithologie, 1871, 1872, 1874, 1875; Contribution to Cuban Ornithology, 1871, 1876; Contribution to the Ornithology of Porto Rico, 1874; Contribution to Cuban Mammalogy, 1877, 1878; Notes on the Fauna of Porto Rico, 1878; New Contributions to the Ornithology of Porto Rico, 1878; Contributions to Cuban Herpetology, 1880; Contributions to Cuban Entomology, 1881; Land and River Mollusks, 1883; Sea Mollusks, 1883; besides descriptions of new species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects, published in journals, organs of learned societies, etc. Gundlach was also distinguished by his skill, grace, and delicacy as a taxidermist, the wonderful patience with which he performed every branch of that work, and the gift of genius by which he was able to give a startlingly natural pose to the specimens he mounted.

The list of honors which Gundlach received from institutions and learned societies is a long one. In 1853 he was made a corresponding member of the Natural History Society of Montreal, and in May of the same year was honored in like manner by the Natural History Society of Weterau. In 1861 the Academy of Sciences of Havana signified the high esteem in which it held him by conferring on him the title of Member of Merit. In January, 1864, he was made a corresponding member of the Entomological Society of Philadelphia; in July of the same year an honorary member of the Society of Naturalists of Berlin; and in the following year a member of the scientific department of the Matanzas Lyceum, and a member of the Sociedad Economica de Amigos del Pais of Havana. In 1867 he was elected a corresponding member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. In 1872 the distinction was conferred upon him of election to membership in the Spanish Society of Natural History, Madrid. In 1878 the Farmers' Circle of the Island of Cuba (Circido de Hacendados) made him a Member of Merit.

Besides his untiring devotion to science, which has been evident in nearly every line of this sketch, Gundlach was distinguished by unaffected modesty and plainness and a charming geniality in his companionship. Simon de Cardenas says, in the tribute from which we have already quoted: "He sympathizes with all persons he sees, and when one has had an hour with him it is a pain to part from him. He is an entertaining converser, no matter what the subject may be. He can soar in the heights of science, talk of history, literature, and philosophy, or engage in the private, intimate, and affectionate conversation of the family circle. If we were required to point out among his many virtues others equally conspicuous, we should certainly mention his honesty and disinterestedness." Juan Clemente Zena said that "in speaking of him we must needs pay him homage or not mention him at all. His face is like a transparent crystal, in which all moral perfections are reflected."

In their investigations of the electrical and magnetic properties of matter at very low temperatures, Profs. Dewar and Fleming have, according to a summary given in the London Times, completed an examination of the electrical conductivity of many pure metals, notably bismuth and mercury, and shown that their electrical resistance vanishes as the temperature approaches the absolute zero; also that at very low temperatures the electrical resistance of bismuth may be increased many hundred times by transverse magnetism. They have analyzed the effect of low temperature on magnets, and studied the magnetic qualities of iron and steel at the temperature of liquid air. They have measured the magnetic permeability of liquid oxygen and its dielectric constant, and shown that this complies with Maxwell's law. They have proved that liquid oxygen is extremely magnetizable, while its insulating and dielectric powers give it a unique position among known liquids and salts.

  1. A continuation of, or rather a supplement to, the Physical, Political, and Natural History of the Island of Cuba, published by Ramon de la Sagra, in which the part allotted to ornithology is edited by Alcides d'Orbigny.
  2. The Gundlach Cuban Museum is certainly worthy of special attention. A more detailed account of the treasures it contains is in preparation. The collections are now deposited in a private hall of the Institute de Segunda Enscüanza of Havana. In April, 1890, it held 4,135 species.