Béla Jenö Cholnoky: An Obituary

28 September 2012

Béla Cholnoky

This post continues the history of the achievements of the Hungarian diatomologist, Béla Cholnoky, known as The Father of South African Diatomology.  In this edition I have used the text of the obituary prepared by Dr Archie (R.E.M) Archibald, a diatomologist trained by Béla:

Béla Jenö Cholnoky 1899-1992

Béla Jenö Cholnoky was born in Budapest on the 27th June, 1899.  His early schooling was at the grammar school in Kolozsvar. Subsequently he attended the universities at Kolozsvar and Szeged, where he studied Biology and was awarded the degree Doctor of Philosophy, summa cum laude.  With the help of a scholarship from the Deutschen Wissenschaften in Berlin, he continued his studies in 1924 and 1925 under Professor E. Bauer and Professor R. Kolkwitz, and gained a further Doctor of Philosphy degree, also summa cum laude.

Dr Cholnoky was appointed to his first post, Assistant at the Botanical Institute of the King Franz-Josephs-University in Szeged, while still a student but was forced to resign in 1926 due to political circumstances.  He then worked as a seed cultivator and merchant, first in Hungary, and later for the firm N.V. Sluis en Groot’s Koninklijke Zaadteelt en Zaadhandel in Holland.  During this time he assembled his own private laboratory for the study of diatoms.  He also built up his own library, which was later expropriated by the Hungarian Government.

At the close of the Second World War, he fled the advancing Russian troops and, through the intervention of Professor K. Hoffler, reached Vienna.  In 1946 he returned to his old firm N.V. Sluis en Groot’s as their Scientific Advisor.  In 1952 he emigrated to South Africa as lecturer at the University of Pretoria.  After four years of lecturing he joined the staff of the National Institute for Water Research, where he was once more able to concentrate his studies on the diatoms.

One of South Africa’s most eminent algologists, Dr Cholnoky was widely recognized as a world authority on the diatoms.  He was a severe critic of his colleagues, both senior and junior, holding very strong views of his own. He was, on the other hand, always prepared to assist with advice and encouragement for those who were interested in the study of diatoms.  To those who worked under him he set an admirable example of complete dedication to his work.  He was always early at the laboratory and, oblivious of time, often worked late into the night.  He seldom took a holiday, unless it was for the purpose of collecting more diatom material.  The diatoms were his whole life and his knowledge of them was immense.  He published papers prolifically and his major work, “Die Okologie der Diatomeen in Binnengewassern” will long remain a text book on freshwater diatom ecology.  At the time of his death on the 5th February 1972 he was engaged on the tremendous task of compiling a systematic monograph on the Diatoms of Africa. It was, however, his own thoroughness and high standards of accuracy which foiled him in his ambition to complete his objective.  The untimely termination of this project is a great loss to all diatom taxonomists, particularly those from Africa.

Prior to his advent in South Africa the diatoms were a little known and neglected entity.  His own studies of the diatoms covered practically the whole of South Africa, and extended into South West Africa [Namibia], Botswana, Rhodesia [Zimbabwe] and Mozambique.  As his legacy to the diatom student he leaves a wealth of published material, and those, who installed by his enthusiasm and vitality for the diatoms, will continue the work he left undone. Of Dr Cholnoky it could well be said “He is the Father of South African Diatomology”.

A bibliography of Dr Cholnoky’s publications is provided below:

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