In Memoriam: Knut Schmidt-Nielsen (September 24, 1915-January 25, 2007)

How did I miss this!?
Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, one of my personal scientific idols, died on January 25th, 2007at the age of 92.
KSN%201.jpgHe has re-invented, or perhaps better to say invented, the field of comparative physiology (now often refered to as ‘evolutionary physiology’). He wrote the standard textbook in the field – Animal Physiology: Adaptation and Environment, that he updated through several editions, from which generations of biologists (including myself) learned to think of physiological mechanisms as adaptations.
He wrote a definitive book on Scaling, as well as a wonderful autobiography – The Camel’s Nose: Memoirs Of A Curious Scientist.
KSN%202.jpgI had a good fortune to meet him a couple of times. He was a Guest Speaker at an NCSU Physiology Graduate Student Research Symposium several years ago where he gave an unusual but fascinating talk. I was his host for the day so I got to spend a lot of time with him one-on-one and try to osmotically draw in some of his genius.
A couple of years later, when his memoir came out, I persuaded Nansy Olson to have a public reading at Quail Ridge Books, which was well attanded and quite fascinating. The very last question from the audience was “Did any of your findings find a practical application?” to which he proudly responded “No!”. The old-style scientist. In it for the curiosity and nothing else.
While Schmidt-Nielsen did research on myriads of different animal species, he will forever be remembered as the Camel Guy. When he arrived at Duke University as a young new professor, he persuaded the Department to let him build an isolation chamber where he could measure the metabolic rate of a camel. They let him do it. He brought in the camel. Fascinating research resulted. He also built an identical, but much smaller, chamber into the wall right next to the camel chamber for the equivalent research in desert mice.
KSN%203.jpgWhen he retired, his position was filled by Steve Nowicki, a birdsong researcher. Duke offered to demolish the camel chamber and turn it into a lab. Steve declined in horror. Instead, he made sure that a plaque was installed at the door (“…this is the camel chamber in which…”) as well as on the little wall-chamber next to it. He turned the inside of the chamber into a grad student office (now, who can beat that – having the office in the ‘camel chamber’?!).
A few years later, Duke University built a monument to Knut Schmidt-Nielsen – a lifesize sculpture of the man and his camel – right outside the Biology building.
For many years after his retirement, Knut Schmidt-Nielsen kept a small office in the Department and came “to work” almost every day. He read the literature, including popular science magazines, and clipped the interesting papers/articles out of them to place in his colleagues’ mailboxes according to their interests. If there was Internet 50 years ago, Knut Schmidt-Nielsen would have been a science blogger for sure!
Always curious, always humble, always learning, always reading, always teaching, always popularizing science, every day of his long life. And that is on top of being truly one of the giants of science of all times.

8 responses to “In Memoriam: Knut Schmidt-Nielsen (September 24, 1915-January 25, 2007)

  1. Very nice–thanks for this. Schmidt-Nielsen was a hero of mine , too. I have taught from his textbook (quirky, whimsically organized, but full of great examples and figures) and read Scaling in a graduate seminar, and I can trace my decision to become a biologist, in part, to reading and being captivated by his book Desert Animals as an undergrad. I also got to meet him once–a consummate gentleman-scientist of the Old School.
    I’d also like to add that KS-N’s West-Coast contemporary (they are often credited, along with Per Scholander, as the co-founders of ecological physiology), and my personal intellectual hero, George A. Bartholomew also died recently (October ’06).

  2. Wow – I missed that, too. The Old School is passing away. It is the dawning of the Age of Gene-Jockeys. But once all those genomes are sequenced, biology has to go back up to physiology – which may be renamed as Organismics or something – but I hope that people will go back and look at the old literature, see what the Giants of the Past have done, and not try to repeat stuff that has been already done (not to mention ideas that have already been thought) many decades before.

  3. The statue’s actually outside of the Gross Chemistry building at Duke. Confused the hell out of me my freshman year, it did.

  4. Thanks for the excellent post. Knut had a great influence on me when I was a graduate student at Duke. He was very important in my career in a number of ways, even after finishing my Duke studies.
    He had some unique ways of stimulating others. Some years after leaving Duke I mentioned to him my interest in studying the physiological adaptations of the Lake Titicaca frog. He replied that he had a long term interest in the same project and, if I did not get started within a year, he would do it! Needless to say, I got started and was eventually pleased that he gave the work good coverage in his textbook.

  5. heh heh… that smirking camel statue just kills me

  6. “The Old School is passing away.”
    Gilbert Gottlieb, July last year.
    Gottlieb, G. ‘Individual Development and Evolution: The Genesis of Novel Behavior’

  7. I know. Another one I met.
    Eberhard Gwinner died (and he was young!) a couple of years ago as well.

  8. It was so nice reading this beautiful post!