Monday, April 4, 2016

Baron, Scientist, Swashbuckler, Spy: The Colorful Life and Tragic Death of Franz Nopcsa

Hey, all! As a full time freelancer, I don't have much time to write for you anymore, but since my attempts to get this piece published have fallen through (twice) I thought I'd go ahead and find a home for it here. Enjoy!




First among his roles, he was an adventurer. He was a dashing Transylvanian baron, a openly queer man who studied the life habits of dinosaurs in ways that nobody before him had. He schemed for the crown of Albania, worked as a spy for the empire of Austria-Hungary, and left behind a wealth of scientific ideas and theories decades ahead of his time. And then, abruptly, he was forgotten. Few outside of the study of paleontology now remember his name.

The history of science is filled with strange lives and buried stories. But few lives were stranger than that of Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás: the flamboyant lord of dinosaurs, and (appropriately for a man who bore a startling resemblance to Freddy Mercury) perhaps the most interesting man ever to turn his attention to rock.



Dateline: 1895, Eastern Europe. The old orders and empires on the continent choke, bound in a web of alliances that will soon ignite into the First World War. The field of geology and the science of paleontology are likewise in turmoil, wracked with questions about the age of the earth and the strange creatures that once lived on it. Most geologists do not believe in the movements of tectonic plates. Most paleontologists restrict themselves to cataloguing bones. And in the little country of Transylvania, amid the forested hills and deep ravines, the aristocratic 18-year-old Franz abruptly discovers his calling.

One spring day, 12-year-old Ilona Nopcsa, Franz’s younger sister, went for a walk amid the hills of the family’s baronial estate and discovered a few pieces of strange, crumbling bone. She collected them and took them home to show her big brother. The fascinated Franz returned to the spot and collected as many fossils as he could find. By the time he left for the University of Vienna, he was determined to become a paleontologist.


Nopcsa hadn’t the slightest background in biology, bones, or paleontology. Worse, the University of Vienna had neither paleontologists nor paleontological materials to teach him. So the restless, ambitious aristocrat decided to teach himself. He contacted foreign researchers and voraciously devoured books on comparative anatomy and biology. And slowly, painstakingly, he worked on the fossils from his estate, which proved to be the first dinosaurian remains ever found from Transylvania. In 1900, at the age of 22, he published a paper that identified the remains of one animal as a duckbilled hadrosaur, bestowing on it the name Telmatosaurus. So far, so good: but Nopcsa was unable to limit himself simply to describing the bones in the accepted fashion. He also tried to reconstruct the soft tissues of blood and muscle and brain, an innovative approach at a time when the upper crust of paleontology had only recently--and grudgingly--come around to practice of mounting skeletons.


In 1903, the restless Nopcsa got his PhD and went wandering through Eastern Europe, making a close study of the geology and paleontology of various spots. His colleagues at Vienna weren't sad to see him go. Nopcsa, often charming and always fashionable, was also well aware of his own intelligence and could be astonishingly arrogant. His aristocratic background likely contributed to his behavior--he’d never held an academic position and never sought one, since his status as a wealthy Transylvanian lord meant he could do more or less as he liked. That attitude was destined to get him into trouble.


Bajazid (left) and Nopcsa (right)

Dinosaurs were just one of the three great loves of Nopsca’s life. One of the others arrived in 1906, when Nopcsa met and fell in love with an Albanian geologist named Bajazid Elmas Dada while traveling in Romania. In contemporary photos they appear oddly matched, the strapping Bajazid towering over the dapper little Baron. But the feeling between them ran deep. Nopcsa was openly gay, a rarity at the time, and perhaps another perk of independent wealth. Nonetheless, when he and Bajazid returned to Vienna, Nopcsa gestured at propriety and officially installed his lover as his live-in secretary.


Nopcsa in Albanian Costume

Nopcsa’s other amour was the region of Albania itself. One of the quarrelsome Balkan states surrounding Greece, it was a goldmine for anybody interested in anthropology. Nopcsa had first visited as a young man, and not content with the close examination of Albanian geologists, he set himself to cataloguing the rocks and geography of the area. In the course of those studies he soon found himself entranced by the folk customs, languages, and religions of the local tribes. He went about his work incognito, dressed in peasant clothing, often with only Bajazid for company. He published over 50 scholarly articles regarding Albanian folklife before he died, and made copious notes that remain the basis for modern study of the region.

Simple observation wasn’t enough for him, however. The more time he spent in the hinterlands, the more intolerable he found Albania’s rule by the Ottoman Turks. Ideally, he decided, Albania should become an independent protectorate of his own beloved Austro-Hungarian empire. It was here he wandered out of science and into statecraft, with mixed results. Immersing himself in the treacherous politics of the Balkans, he leaned on his connections in the Hungarian aristocracy to hustle for the arming of Albanian tribes. Nopcsa’s short-term goal was the launching of a guerilla war against the Turks. But he had bigger dreams as well: in pursuing his aims, he put the word out that he would graciously accept the crown of Albania should his plans succeed.

They didn’t. Albania did achieve independence in 1912, after a series of fierce wars ripped through the Balkans, pushing the Ottoman Turks out of the continent and leaving Austria-Hungary weakened. But Nopcsa was not to be king. It was not for lack of trying, however. At an international conference clarifying the status of the newly independent Albania, he proposed both himself and an ingenious scheme for raising funds. “Once a reigning European monarch,” he wrote in his journal, “I would have no difficulty coming up with the further funds needed by marrying a wealthy American heiress aspiring to royalty, a step which under other circumstances I would have been loath to take.” (Bajazid’s opinions on this do not appear to have merited consideration.) But whatever his hopes, Nopcsa was likely never a serious contender. The conference passed on his offer and a German prince, Wilhelm von Weid, got the job.

It was a moot point in any case. Wilhelm von Weid barely lasted six months. In the following two years, the Balkans again exploded, Archduke Ferdinand was shot, and Europe descended into the horrors of World War One. The patriotic Nopcsa joined the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Army as an officer and went undercover, leading a series of espionage missions into the war-torn western region of Britain’s ally Romania. In 1916, he recruited a squad of Albanian volunteers and led them into battle as well. All for nothing. With war’s end in 1918, Romania took over Transylvania, confiscating Nopcsa’s baronial estates and fortune. The event left him in dire financial straights. Adding injury to insult, rebellious peasants nearly beat him to death when he attempted to visit one of his prior holdings. Chastened, he retreated back to Vienna and the arms of Bajazid. There was nothing for it; he would finally have to get a job.


In a stroke of apparent luck, Nopcsa was soon appointed the head of Hungary’s geological survey. But his arrogance--more tolerable in a man of independent means--proved his undoing in the workplace. His superiors and subordinates alike detested him, and he was eventually forced to resign in 1925. The resignation marked the beginning of Nopcsa’s downhill slide. Hounded by creditors, he was forced to sell his precious collection of Transylvanian fossils to the Natural History Museum in London. His debts mounted and his health declined, sending him into a black depression from which he never recovered. By April 1933, the 56 year old Nopcsa reached the end of his rope. Despairing, he spiked Bajazid’s tea with sleeping powder before killing both his lover and himself.


It was a sad and ignoble end to one of the finest and least-orthodox minds paleontology has ever seen.


**


And yet he left behind not just an incredible story, but innovative and daring work. He dove into the infant discipline of paleobiology, attempting to reconstruct not just skeletal remains but long-vanished behaviors and ecosystems. Outrageously prescient claims were his speciality: he was among the first in the 20th century to champion the old Victorian idea that birds were descendents of warm-blooded dinosaurs, something widely considered at the time to be ridiculous. (His actual theory--that birds came specifically from small, ground-running dinosaurs--appears to be wrong, but nobody’s perfect.) He proposed that the flamboyant crests and horns of duckbills existed because of sexual selection, in the manner of a peacock’s tail, another idea that’s coming back into circulation. He was also one of the few to throw his weight behind Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, which was laughingly dismissed until the 1960s but is firmly upheld today.
But Nopcsa’s studies on the Eastern European Cretaceous are his most enduring legacy.  Over the course of his life he named 25 different species of Mesozoic reptile, nearly all of which came from his native Transylvania. His excavations on Nopcsa family land led to the discovery not just of Telmatosaurus but of an entire island ecosystem of dinosaurs. Most remarkable of the animals Nopcsa found in the region was Magyarosaurus, a long-necked dwarf sauropod shrunken by the constraints of life on a small island. Nopcsa argued that this was an example of a worldwide biological principle--that large creatures on islands got smaller, and that smaller creatures soon evolved larger size. (Picture the dwarf hippo of Madagascar and the giant Komodo dragon by way of example.) His theory of “island dwarfism,” like many of his ideas, wasn’t accepted until decades after his death. Now, it is by far his most famous contribution to our understanding of geography and evolution. Appropriately for one of the founders of paleobiology, he left behind writings describing an ancient ecosystem so interesting that modern paleontologists continue to dig there--and uncover new and strange animals--today. Recent finds include the famous “four-clawed” protobird Baluar and the immense pterosaur Hatzegopteryx.

Hateg Island, by Sergey Krasovskiy
In that way, at least, Nopcsa’s legacy lives on--a figure far ahead of his time in many ways, and one of the most swashbuckling scientists any field could ask for.  

6 comments:

  1. Great article about one of the most interesting figures in palaeontology. A very enjoyable read indeed! .... oh what I would give for a great Franz Nopsca biopic...

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  2. What were your sources? I've been dying to find out more concrete information on this fascinating figure from paleontological history! All i can ever seem to find are internet articles...

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  3. Interesting stuff! Astonishing that he was one of the first to put flesh on bones! I recall his life restoration of Struthiosaurus which is actually not bad at all, even modern looking.Please invite Asher to contribute more.

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  4. Love reading about paleontologists that lead such intriguing lives. Coming across their names in old dino books as a kid, I usually got the impression that they just did science and nothing else, but putting their personal histories (and how their lives affected their contributions to the field) into perspective makes the entirety of paleontology feel way more interesting. Frustrating how characters like Nopcsa and their ideas got overlooked so often.

    One question though, why does the spelling of his name change partway through the article?

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    1. Oops! I'll fix it.

      I suspect, for my part, that anybody who goes into paleontology is at least a little bit odd, and many of classic paleontologists were deeply strange people. That tends to get flattened by popular accounts, because they're reduced to their work, and their lives get elided.

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  5. Good sources for more information are two longish articles co-written by Dave Weishampel:
    Weishampel, David B, and Wolf-Ernst Reif (1984). “The Work of Franz Baron Nopcsa (1877-1933): Dinosaurs, Evolution and Theoretical Tectonics.” Jahrbuch für Geologie 127 : 147–203, and Weishampel, David B. et al. (2013). “Franz Baron Nopcsa.” Historical Biology 25, no. 4 : 391–544.

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