Béla Cholnoky: A history. Part 2

30 September 2012

This post continues the history of the Father of South African diatomology. This text was originally prepared by Dr Keve T Kiss of the Danube Research Station, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, in 1999, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Béla Cholnoky. This is the second of three parts.

Part 2

Continuing from Part 1:

Scientific work: I was able to do scientific work only in my short free time, mainly at night and on weekends and holidays, and this is what I am doing since.  Today, the number of my published papers and submitted papers is 47” (1943).

At the end of World War II, he had to escape from the advancing Russian troops and through the intervention of Professor Karl Höfler he reached Vienna.  Later the well-known seed breeder, Ernst Benary, helped to migrate to West Germany, from where he moved to Enkhuizen, the Netherlands, in 1946.  He worked there as a scientific advisor for the firm N.V. Sluis en Groot’s till 1952.  From here he was invited to South Africa as lecturer at  the University of Pretoria.  After four years, he accepted a position at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research finally to do real research as a hydrobiologist of the National Institute for Water Research.  Since that time both he and his wife Kaethe Pfannkuche, dedicated themselves to diatom research.

Cholnoky’s oeuvre was accomplished in South Africa.  He was a strict critic of both older and younger colleagues, but at the same time he was helpful to everybody interested in diatoms.  His life and his activity were a model for many others.  He started work in his laboratory early in the morning and he often stayed until late at night.  Diatoms were his life and his knowledge of them was immense.  Beside many dozens of the papers and the well-known book, ‘Die Ökologie der Diatomeen in Binnengewässer’ he planned to write the monograph of diatoms in Africa. His plan could not be realized due to his death on 25th February 1972, a big loss to diatom research.  His colleagues could rightly say: ‘Cholnoky was the father of South African Diatomology‘.

His last “pupil”, the Austrian diatomologist Anna-Maria Schmid spent half a year with him in the spring of 1971.  She remembers this period: “… I learned a lot from Cholnoky, despite the fact that he was already seriously ill when I arrived in the Easter week of 1971.  He was hospitalized from September, the symptoms of a bronchitis. But he knew he had cancer since both his parents died from it“.  Schmid writes: “… my ‘Doktor-Mother’ was Elsa Kusel-Fetzmann and she introduced me to the study of living diatoms, but Cholnoky  showed me how to identify them by their cell wall features, which is equally important.    Until I visited the laboratory of Cholnoky at the CSIR in Pretoria, I would never have guessed that so much literature existed in diatoms, therefore I became more and more interested in these little creatures.  …Scientifically , Cholnoky often disagreed with other diatom researchers, especially with Hustedt, but there was one scientist to whom he was very close, namely Karl Höfler in Vienna, Head of the Plant Physiology Department.  They mutually influenced each other in their research, and they had been full of respect for each other.  As so often in science, Cholnoky had much farther reached plans than he could fulfil: he showed me his cabinets full of data and diatoms, he planned to write a comprehensive “Diatom-flora of South Africa”.  He had left behind a torso of his work, which was later published and annotated in portions by Archibald and Schoeman.  In summary, Cholnoky was a short man with a giant brain and willpower, too big for such a short life, and his scientific work was greatly hampered by terrible Wars“. (Schmid, 28/10/1999).

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