Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/September 1899/Sketch of Oscar Schmidt

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OSCAR SCHMIDT was characterized by Ludwig von Graff, his successor at Grätz, as a real naturalist who, keeping up with the advances of science and philosophy all his life, as a zoologist spanned the whole domain of that science, giving equal interest to every part and branch of it. The animal as a whole, as a living being in the series of organisms, was the object of his concern, and all the parts of the animal and all the processes that go on within it were alike interesting and important to him; and the ultimate purpose of his study of that object was to gain from the facts disclosed a philosophic view of Nature.

Eduard Oscar Schmidt was born at Torgau, Prussia, February 24, 1823, the son of a military chaplain who was descended from an old family of clergymen—"a man of fine Saxon culture, with no very great taste for theology, and open-minded to a ripe old age," and who died in 1875. His mother was of French and German (Hamburg) descent, and counted the great Aristotelian Petrus Ramus among her ancestors. The father was a gentle instructor to the son; and the latter, attending in the intervals of study to duties of the household and the farm and making good use of his opportunities for relaxation, enjoyed a young life that was invigorating to mind and body. He thus acquired tastes that led him frequently in his later life to leave the city and his study and go into the country to build and plant, whereby he endeared himself to the Badenese farmers. On rainy days and winter evenings, as he gleefully told of himself in 1858, the boy of eleven or twelve years of age entertained himself and had his fancy stimulated by reading Campe's old accounts of his travels. He thus became interested in geography, and acquired a thirst for travel that was never quenched.

Having finished his elementary schooling at Weissenfels, on the Saale, where his grandfather had served as superintendent, he went in 1836 to the celebrated Royal School at Pforta, of which his father was an alumnus, and whither he himself took his son thirty years later. He was much impressed by the teaching of Koberstein, the historian of literature, who unlocked for him the world of Goethe and of romance; and he went out from Pforta into life with a full conviction that the soundness of our culture depends upon its humanistic foundation. He went to Halle in the fall of 1842 to fulfill his military obligations and study mathematics and natural science, and became interested in other branches. At the Berlin Hochschule, whither he went next, he further broadened the scope of his culture, pursued philosophical studies, and finally settled upon the organic sciences. His interest was gradually diverted from mathematics, and he took up zoölogy with enthusiasm. Johann Müller—whose portrait, his son Erich Schmidt says, in the memorial address from which we draw most of the facts of his life, always adorned his room—permitted him, in 1845, after a summer term in comparative anatomy at Heligoland, to take part in a research upon sea animals, and impressed a stamp on the young investigator's view of Nature that lasted till the Darwinian revolution. Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg interested him in the investigation of the minute life of the infusoria, and, besides being his teacher, had a fatherly affection for him.

In 1846 Schmidt obtained a promotion to Doctor of Philosophy at Halle, the subject of his still unpriuted dissertation being the sacred Scarabæus. He passed the higher teachers' examination in Berlin, and thereby avoided a year of probation at a realgymnasium. In August, 1847, he habilitated himself at Jena. He presented, on the occasion, a paper entitled Morphological Fragments, in which, while the name of Oken was mentioned appreciatively in the introduction, the gap between his philosophy and the current zoölogy was insisted upon. He became Professor Extraordinary of Natural History in this university in 1849, and Director of the Grand Ducal Zoölogical Museum in 1854. While at Jena he published the Handbook of Comparative Anatomy (1849), the Hand Atlas of Comparative Anatomy (1852), and a historical study on the Development of Comparative Anatomy (1855). Some results of a journey to the North in the course of his studies of the Turbellaria were embodied in a lecture on the Faroe Islands (1848), and Pictures from the North, collected during a Journey to the North Cape (1854), a versatile work, in which his sharp powers of observation were well illustrated. A work of somewhat different character was a lecture on Goethe's Relation to the Organic Natural Sciences, which was delivered in the Berlin Singakademie and was printed in 1853.

Having occupied the professorship at Jena for seven years on a salary never exceeding one hundred thalers, and after declining an invitation to Prague, Schmidt in 1855 accepted the appointment of Professor of Zoölogy in the University of Cracow. The conditions at this institution were quite different from those which had surrounded him at Jena. He received more liberal allowances than had been granted him there; but political affairs were disturbed, and he withdrew in 1857 to become Professor of Zoölogy and Comparative Anatomy, and eventually rector, at Grätz. Here he spent the fifteen most enjoyable and most fruitful years of his life, of which his son, Erich Schmidt, has given, in his memorial address, a most pleasant picture. "In the magnificent scenery," he says, "among which he often wandered with his growing children, with warm-hearted men around him, sure of the increasing affection and capacity of his students, he reached his culmination as a naturalist and as a man. He was active in every direction. The university was in a very promising period of its career. A medical faculty was required, and that magnified his function. He also represented his department in the Johanneum, and presided over the museum. He went every year to Dalmatia while he was composing his monograph on the sponges, and made experiments in their artificial cultivation, being given one year a small war steamer at his disposal. These journeys were doubly enjoyed when Franz Unger went with him to Lesina or to the Ionian Islands. He and the great botanist had a close community of interests, and it was an inestimable privilege, during the great scientific crisis, to stand shoulder to shoulder with an older man, who to power of following philosophical intricacies united the habit of the most exact research with finely trained effort and suggestive intuition. Together the two devoted themselves to the study of Darwinism, at first opposed to it, as is shown by one of Schmidt's printed essays, but soon becoming impressed with the conviction that all scientific progress was connected with that revolution, and finally Schmidt gave all his energy to the advancement of it. As Rector Magnificus—the first Protestant to wear the golden chain at an Austrian university—he declared himself, in his inaugural address, for Darwinism with a resoluteness peculiar to him, and neither the silly demonstrations of the theological students nor the wrath of Cardinal Rauscher could intimidate him from the indication of free investigation. . . . The rectoral year 1865-66 was also the year of the Austro-Prussian War, and he now proved that the rashly progressive man to whom the whole clash of opinions was a bath of steel also possessed a considerable measure of self-control. He bore himself correctly in every sense in his difficult position, and, without turning his back upon his native Prussia, he so completely devoted himself to the care of the wounded as to receive a note of thanks from the General Archduke Albrecht. Having been chosen a deputy to the Landtag, his voice was always heard in favor of the Liberal side. He served indefatigably in the communal council and the school board. The Protestant communes depended upon him as one of their most effective champions, even to the end of the partisan contest. Besides all this many-sided scientific and public-spirited activity, Schmidt had time to describe the lower animals for Brehm's Thierleben, and to write a number of popular treatises. A lively social disposition bound him to numerous colleagues, and on the whole he felt so much at home in Grätz, especially after he had a new institute and a share in the direction of a zoölogical station at Trieste in prospect, that he had no thought of a change. He declined invitations to Marburg and Dorpat. He was always favored by the Government, and kept the marks of its consideration faithfully in memory."

Ludwig von Graff describes three plainly marked periods in Schmidt's scientific career. The first, the beginning of which coincided with his entrance into his scientific professorship, was characterized by his labors on the Turbellaria, from which he was only occasionally diverted during his residence at Jena and Cracow. "The observations on infusoria, radiates, and tapeworms, the structure of the annelids and the development of the mollusks, the descriptions of new amphibia, and the important discovery of the crustacean nature of the peltogasters, were, we might say, only rests in the uninterrupted course of the Turbellaria studies; and that Schmidt was constantly returning to them was not merely because particular interest had been devoted to them in Germany at that time only by M. Schultze and R. Leuckart, for other animal groups had fared no better among the then small number of scientifically working zoölogists, but Schmidt had won his earliest scientific fame with his little book on the fresh-water Rhabdocœlas (1848), and had by means of it entered the circle of recognized investigators. He gave in this book the first connected presentation of the whole organization of a group of animals, the diversity and great abundance of which in fresh water were hardly suspected, and the anatomy of which consisted of few and imperfectly understood isolated data; described new systems of organs in them, and based an improved classification on their remarkably complicated and variously graded structure, with new families, genera, and species. The little book was therefore received with much interest. A journey to the Faroe Islands in 1848, and his first excursion to Lesina in 1852, followed in 1856 by a journey from Cracow to Nice and Naples, enabled him to increase the number of new species, and permitted an insight into the great diversity of forms, without, however, giving him time for accurate anatomical investigations, for the nature of the objects promised a considerable advance in this direction only at the cost of tenacious patience and untiring industry. His subsequent labors on the Rhabdocœlas of the vicinity of Cracow, the Dendrocœlas of the vicinity of Grätz, and his researches on the Turbellaria of Corfu and Cephalonia, which (in 1861) closed this period of his career as worthily as it had begun, proved that Schmidt possessed both these requirements. These labors, if he had accomplished no more, would have been sufficient to give him an honorable position in science for all time.

"The second period begins in Grätz. Some contributions to the knowledge of the prehistoric vertebrate fauna of Steiermarck resulted from Schmidt's keen observations of Nature during an excursion in the Alps. But the Adriatic, so near, enticed him into new paths, and offered an inexhaustible field for work in the sponges. Aside from his contributions to the theory of the Bathybius and to the systematics of the Gephyrea, the sea sponges constituted the object of his studies during the whole period of his residence in Grätz, and were the occasion of yearly journeys to the Adriatic coasts. The results reached by Schmidt in this field placed him in the foremost rank of contemporary investigators, while his occupation with the sponges marked the completion of a revolution in his view of Nature by converting him to Darwinism. After his work the characteristic fluid form of the sponges became a classic subject in the study of the transmutation theory.

"At the time of the appearance of Schmidt's first work on the sponges of the Adriatic (in 1862), just enough of their anatomy and physiology had been made known through individual labors, especially those of Lieberkühn, to prove their animal nature; and then, also, the sponges first found a place in the fifth edition of Schmidt's Handbook of Comparative Anatomy. But any one who undertook either in the Adriatic or the Mediterranean to make his way through the immense wealth of the forms would have found himself without help of any kind. It was therefore Schmidt's purpose to lay the basis, through exact description and definition of the forms, for continued investigation through which the study might be further advanced. He carried out this purpose, recognizing in the skeleton parts what survived amid the changes, clearly defining the species and genera, nineteen of which were new, and brilliantly demonstrating his talent in systematization. While in the first supplement, in 1864, which brought up the histology of the sponges, he still acknowledged himself an adherent of the old school, he expressed the hope in the second supplement that science might some time come upon the track of the genealogical relations of species; and, in the memorable rector's address of November 15, 1865, he openly signalized his passage to the new theory, and proclaimed it, with all the youthful enthusiasm and carelessness as to consequences characteristic of his nature, as the gospel of the research of the future.

"The idea of utilizing the great reproductiveneness of the sponges for artificial cultivation was suggested to Schmidt during his studies of the Dalmatian fauna, and his experiments in this direction made his name well known in the Austrian coast land and far beyond. After the publication of an article on the subject in the Wiener Zeitung he was requested, by the Imperial-Royal Ministry of Trade and National Economy, to make a special presentation of his views respecting the possibility and methods of cultivating sponges artificially in Dalmatia. He first asked for means for experimenting, as furnishing the prime and most essential method of determining where and how a sponge culture could be instituted with the best prospect of success. The request was not granted, but Schmidt was requested to furnish data respecting the provisions and measures within reach which might be employed with advantage till further information could be obtained concerning the adaptability of sponges to propagation from such local experiments as might be carried on through the industrial and commercial chambers of Dalmatia. The Notes on Sponges in the Adriatic Sea and an article of similar import in the Triester Zeitung of March 12, 1862, were the answer to this request, and they were followed by Schmidt's having placed at his disposal, by the exchanges of Trieste, in the next season, money and the control of the war steamer Hentzis for use in scientific and practical investigations on the Dalmatian coast. With the assistance of his brother, Eugen, he carried his experiments to a successful issue at Sebenico, Zlarin Valle Socolizza on Lesina, Curzola, Lagosta, Meleda, and Ragusa, but especially in the more favored stations of Zlarin and Lesina, and demonstrated the possibility of artificial propagation. In order to test the practical value of the experiments, propagating stations were established on the island of Lesina and visited by Schmidt every spring. The results of the experiments were presented in a report to the Imperial-Royal Ministry of Commerce and National Economy, in which the possibility of artificial propagation was emphatically affirmed."

Unfortunately, the Dalmatines have not been quick enough to take advantage of the opportunity thus offered to them to establish a new industry on their not very busy coast. Bucchich continued Schmidt's experiments till 1872, but no capitalists have been found to establish the cultivation of sponges on an extensive and permanent scale.

Another enterprise, however—the Zoölogical Station at Trieste, to which Schmidt for a time devoted all his energy—has had a more fortunate realization. The plan of it was developed by Carl Vogt, but it would never have been erected if Schmidt's practical sense had not adapted the plan to the actual needs of the case and the financial conditions imposed by the state, and if he had not given the weight of his personality to the accomplishment of it. The erection of a German Empire at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War was an occasion of proud and exultant joy to Schmidt; and when, in the spring of 1872, he was elected, at the instance of his friend Haeckel, a professor in the newly instituted university at Strasburg, he deemed it a patriotic duty to accept.

With his removal to Strasburg, what both Erich Schmidt and Professor von Graff call the third period of Schmidt's scientific career began. It was a period of undisturbed ease in his home life, and was devoted chiefly to the continuation of the studies of the sponges, with a few special researches, the results of which appeared in books, on the theory of descent, fossil animals, on Hartman's theories, and on social democracy. His systematic and anatomical labors on the sponges—the provisional conclusions of which, in 1870, constituted the Grunzüge einer Spongienfauna des Atlantischen Gebietes (Outlines of a Sponge Fauna of the Atlantic Region)—were carried on. Professor von Graff says, from the point of view of the development theory. Besides several smaller contributions to the building up of the theory of descent, the most important of all his works of this time is his book on the Theory of Descent and Darwinism (Appletons' International Scientific Series)—"one of the best presentations of all the questions pertaining to that subject, and distinguished from other similar works both by the philosophical spirit with which the whole discussion is carried on, and by the even consideration it gives to all the various fundamental points of the principle of descent. The prominent features of Schmidt's presentation appear most especially in the final chapter, the subject of which is the Application of the Theory of Descent to Man, which he had also previously discussed in a public address. Shortly after this he reduced to absurdity, in a very forcible attack on Hartman's Philosophy of the Unconscious, the idea of the Social Democrats that they could use Darwinism to the advantage of their Utopia, and treated the subject of the Mammalia in their Relation to Primeval Times (Appletons' International Scientific Series) most vigorously from the point of view of the development theory." He also found time for special researches on the Structure and Development of Loxosema, the Eyes of Arthropods, and, still keeping up his studies of the sponges, closed his more than twenty years' labors on this group with his Sponges of the Gulf of Mexico, and his last scientific work—Derivation of New Species through the Decay and Atrophy of Older Characteristics. The preface to the former work, Professor von Graff says, shows plainly how Schmidt, in contrast to so many fellow-laborers in the field of the theory of descent, was always circumspect in a high degree, and never suffered himself to be carried so far in his zeal as to leave the ground of facts. Although a champion of monophyletic derivation, he did not overlook the facts that might be brought to bear in favor of a polyphiletic origin.

During the later years of his life Schmidt visited Heligoland, and enjoyed the sea air, which seemed to have become necessary to him, during two winters at Dohrn's Institute at Naples, in southern France, and at Grado, and attended the meetings of naturalists at Leipsic, Wiesbaden, Salzburg, Baden-Baden, Munich, Cassel, and Freiburg, where he was a welcome guest and a prominent speaker. In September, 1885, as president of the Zoölogical Section he entertained his fellow-specialists at his house. A slight stroke of apoplexy, which he suffered in the summer of 1882, passed away without seeming to leave any trace. He spent the Easter season of 1885 with his son's family in Vienna and with Graff in Grätz. He intended to speak on Easter of 1886 in Weimar and to visit Jena, "whither he expected to return in his sixty-fifth year so as to attach a good end to a good beginning." But on the morning of January 9, 1886, after he had spent the previous evening in pleasant social intercourse, there came another stroke. He never recovered consciousness, but died on January 16th.

Professor von Graff describes Schmidt's method of teaching as one encouraging the students to pursue their own ways of thinking. He did not expect formal theses from them, but, having indicated the theme, left them to work it out according to their own logical processes, and as often let them choose their own subjects. Having found a pupil's bent, he sought to turn him into a corresponding course, "and never tried to make a poor naturalist out of one who might become a good doctor or teacher." In his lectures he was earnest and enthusiastic, not as good a speaker as writer, and sometimes betraying his trouble to find the right word; "but he knew how to win the love of his pupils for his subject, and, while trying to make the comprehension of the matter not too difficult, to keep interest alive by occasional glances at the theoretical significance of the facts. It was very far from his purpose to make pastime for his hearers, and, when he was polemical, every one had to be made sensible of the purely technical bearing."

Professor Schmidt's literary work covered a field of extraordinary breadth. Besides numerous works and text-books in systematic and anatomical zoölogy and life histories, he published popular lectures and essays in many different periodicals, recensions, reviews of books, translations, and even political articles. It would be impossible to give a complete bibliography of his works, because he left no notes respecting them. A list of his publications in zoölogy, by Professor von Graff, includes ninety-nine titles.