Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Picaresque Life of Franz Baron Nopcsa

On Tuesday, I wrote about Magyarosaurus, the diminutive sauropod of Haţeg Island. I referred to its discoverer, Franz Baron Nopcsa, as "flamboyant." This is, some may argue, a rather mild adjective. I wouldn't disagree. Of all the characters who populate the pageant of science through the ages, Nopcsa is one of the most captivating. He's almost too good to be true: proudly aristocratic, openly homosexual, a spy and adventurer, aspirant to the Albanian throne, and of course, a heck of a scientist.

Nopcsa, the scion of an aristocratic Hungarian family, was only 18 years old in 1895 when his sister asked him to examine some peculiar fossils found at the family estate in Transylvania. This spurred his studies at the University of Vienna, and thus began the career of one of the Europe's great scientists. As I discussed in the Magyarosaurus post, the dinosaurs of Haţeg were smaller than similar species from other parts of the world, which Nopcsa concluded was the result of insular dwarfism, the tendency for populations of large animals to become smaller in size when they are isolated on an island. He was the first to suppose that this occurred in dinosaurs. Nopcsa also identified other dwarf dinosaurs including the hadrosaur Telmatosaurus transylvanicus and an ankylosaurid called Struthiosaurus transylvanicus.

Nopcsa's achievements in paleontology reflect a keen eye and a deep curiosity about the lives of dinosaurs. He correctly interpreted the first example of dinosaur feeding behavior preserved in the fossil record, a Compsognathus bearing the skeleton of a lizard in its belly. He also stands out for championing the ideas that birds evolved from ground-dwelling theropods, based on an examination of the feet of Archaeopteryx and Compsognathus, and that at least some dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded. It would take the dinosaur renaissance of the 60's and 70's for these ideas to gain real traction.

His contributions to paleontology would be enough to distinguish him, but the story only gets crazier from there. He took his title seriously; in Edwin Colbert's The Great Dinosaur Hunters and Their Discoveries, he describes Nopcsa as actually having peasants bow to him as he traveled between his estates. Nopcsa also had an obsession with the land of Albania, and during his lifetime was the world's foremost expert on the troubled realm. In fact, after Albania was granted autonomy after the Balkan Wars freed it from Ottoman control, Nopcsa petitioned Vienna to allow him to take the throne; his plan was to ride into the country on a white horse, leading five hundred civilian-clad soldiers. The higher-ups of the Austro-Hungarian army weren't too keen on it. They were impressed enough by his talents to enlist Nopcsa as a spy, however, disguised as a peasant and gathering information along the Hungarian-Romanian border prior to and during World War I.

This presaged his fall from the aristocracy. After "the war to end all wars," with Austria-Hungary defeated, Transylvania was ceded to Romania and Nopcsa lost much of his land and fortune. As a consolation prize, he was appointed president of the Hungarian Geological Survey. Those qualities that make him such a fascinating figure seem to have made him ill-suited to institutional life, however, and his tenure was stormy and brief. In 1929 he left Hungary with his secretary, confidant, and lover Bayazid Doda, traveling Italy by motorcycle until his wallet was empty.

He wouldn't fade away quietly, though. After living a few years in a diminished state - he sold his entire fossil collection to the Natural History Museum in London to get by - he left this life in one final dramatic gesture. In what may have been the most heartbreaking tea service in history, Nopcsa drugged Doda, putting him to sleep. Then he shot him in the head. After writing a suicide note in which he explained his actions - he did not want to leave Doda sick, destitute, and alone - he took his own life.

As Weishampel has noted, Franz Baron Nopcsa aspired to do more than score fossils for museums. In his theories, he attempted to suss out what kind of lives dinosaurs and other extinct animals led. His insights were as remarkable as the uncompromising life he led.

More: GLBTQ, Wiki, Robert Elsie's Early Albanian Photography. Weishampel, an expert on the Transylvanian dinosaurs, is also an expret on Baron Nopcsa, as Steve Brusatte writes at Dino Data. Weishampel coauthored the 1995 article The Centennial of Transylvanian Dinosaur Discoveries: A Reexamination of the life of Franz Baron Nopcsa in Volume 15 of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. If anyone has a spare $85 for a back issue, I'm not too proud for charity...


  1. David, this is really fascinating. Makes me want to read more about this dude. So I will!
    Thanks. Your blog is amazing. I love it.

  2. Hey, thanks! That means a lot coming from a true woman of distinction. Apparently David Weishampel was working on a biography of the good Baron around 2000-2001, but it hasn't been published.


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