Béla Cholnoky: A giant amongst aquatic scientists

28 September 2012

Bela Cholnoky, one of the world’s greatest diatomologists

A still to be published chronology of aquatic science in South Africa lists several prominent individuals as pioneers in the development of this field.  There is, however, a glaring omission, this being the name of the Hungarian diatomologist, Béla Cholnoky.

Béla Cholnoky, as did his US contemporary, Ruth Patrick, pioneered methods for the assessment of aquatic environments decades before the ‘modern era’ of aquatic sciences.  Both of these scientific visionaries realized the immense amounts of information they could glean from studies of a single group of algae, namely the diatoms.  Way back in the 1960s, Ruth Patrick influenced the development of federal monitoring programmes evaluating the condition of freshwater – and also the realization by industry of the value that diatoms could play in water quality monitoring programmes.  Béla Cholnoky developed the basis for a similar understanding but, regrettably, could not break through resistance to the innovations he elucidated.

I was fortunate enough to learn some of what I know about diatoms from a Archie Archibald, a world-reknowned South African diatomologist who worked with Béla and was trained by him.  Some years ago I was successful in re-introducing the use of diatoms into South African aquatic biomonitoring, something that I promised Archie that I would endeavor to achieve.  Sadly, Archie was no longer around and, equally sadly, there is still resistance to what is probably the most powerful tool in the aquatic biomonitoring toolbox.

Ruth Patrick, a pioneer of the use of diatoms to assess the aquatic environment

Droplets will be devoting several posts to documenting some aspects of the life and work of Béla Cholnoky – with parallels to the work of Ruth Patrick.  Hungarian scientists and diatomologists worldwide are proud of what Béla achieved.  I believe that South African’s should be as aware and as proud, of what this man achieved in our country.

(Bill Harding is an aquatic ecologist and algologist who has worked with diatoms since the 1980s.  Bill was responsible for several projects, funded by the Water Research Commission, which recently created a new foundation for the use of diatoms in South African biomonitoring.  This work has produced manuals and methods that are now used in several countries).

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