How did I miss this!?
Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, one of my personal scientific idols, died on January 25th, 2007at the age of 92.
He 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.
I 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.
When 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.