Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/June 1885/Sketch of Dr. Alfred E. Brehm

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ON the 11th of November last there died a man who is entitled by every consideration to a distinguished place in the pages of a scientific journal. For, whatever Alfred Brehm may have lacked in the systematic formalism of technical zoölogists, it can not be denied that he was really great and even unique in the sympathetic comprehension of animals as living beings. Other works similar to the "Thierleben" ("Animal-Life") exist, and have great merit, but in this sympathetic aspect they are far behind this ten-volumed work. It in no way detracts from his merit that he had to call in specialists to assist him in describing the insects and the lower animals; for these departments are a world in themselves, requiring a whole lifetime for their study, and his life was too short to compass everything. But he opened a new door to the vertebrate world; and, if the question be asked how it was possible to give so large and expensive a book permanent currency with the German public, the answer must be found in the sympathetic element of the work, which brought a new world so near to us, and so inspired it that the soul-life of animals is no longer an empty sound.

It was Alfred Brehm's privilege to grow up among the most favorable circumstances conceivable for a nascent naturalist. He was born on the 2d of February, 1829, at Renthendorf, near Neustadt, on the Orla. He could have had no better guide to his future course than his father, the pastor of the parish, who as "Father Brehm" was known among the older ornithologists of his time as indisputably one of the most distinguished observers of the habits of birds. What the no less eminent ornithologist Z. F. Naumann was for Anhalt and its vicinity, Christian L. Brehm was for Thuringia, a favorite region for all lovers of birds, and full of inspiration for youth having a taste for natural history. This inspiration could not fail to work deeply in so receptive a spirit as the son possessed, and he thus grew up literally in an ornithological atmosphere, in which his especial taste and aptitude later took firm root. Thus were early developed in him the future ornithologist and the self-reliant, independent spirit. In 1847 the famous and wealthy African traveler, Baron J. W. von Müller, proposed that he go with him to Africa as his ornithological assistant. It was known that young Brehm was already not only an accomplished ornithologist, who was acquainted with the voices of all the birds, but that he was also a splendid shot, who had himself contributed many precious additions to his father's great collection of European birds, which was estimated to contain nine thousand specimens. Brehm had just passed his abiturient examinations when Müller's invitation came to him; and, as his father had nothing to say in opposition to it, he immediately made his own conditions and decided to go. The journey was to be undertaken at once, and to last five years. Brehm did not return till 1852, after he had explored Egypt, Nubia, and Eastern Soudan, countries that have always had great attractions for zoölogists, especially for ornithologists. Here is the resort of many birds which migrate from Europe to seek a winter home in summer-land, and also the abode of a multitude of African species which never leave that quarter of the world. Naumann also sent his apostles hither at about the same time, and one of them, the youthful Vierthaler, who has long been resting in Nubian soil, described with much spirit, in "Die Natur" for 1852, the kind of a bird paradise which he found on the banks of the White and the Blue Nile. It was given to young Brehm alone comprehensively to depict this life in his first publication, "Reise Skizzen aus Nordost Africa" ("Travel Sketches from Northeastern Africa"), three volumes, Jena, 1853. After he had attended the University of Jena, and had subsequently studied the treasures of the Zoölogical Court-Museum at Vienna, under the guidance of the recently deceased Leopold Joseph Fitzinger, its custodian, he became as it were dead for any other than a scientific world, and only the innate energy of his character enabled him to maintain a fixed purpose in life. For every effort to establish himself was defeated in consequence of his having so long lived a wandering life in Africa—as is generally the case with extensive travelers, he had no taste tor a sedentary career—and it was, therefore, not strange to see him starting off again in 1856. This time the field of his researches was Spain and its bird-life, which a brother of his had already studied to some extent. Then, in order to study an opposite region to this, he went in 1860 to the North and visited Norway and Lapland. The fruit of this journey was "Das Leben der Vögel" ("The Life of Birds"), Glogau, 1861, and a general fame as a traveler and writer. He soon afterward received an invitation from Duke Ernst of Saxe-Coburg Gotha to go with him on a hunting-journey to Bogosland and Abyssinia, which was begun in 1862. At the request of the duke, he worked up the collected impressions and observations of this hasty expedition in 1863 into "Ergebnisse einer Reise nach Habesch" ("Results of a Journey to Habesch"), Hamburg, 1863. The physiognomic and sympathetic tastes characteristic of Brehm are also prominent in this book. He was at about the same time appointed director of the Thiergarten in Hamburg, a position which furnished him an excellent opportunity to add to his store of zoölogical observations. It must have been of much value to him, for he had already conceived the idea of publishing an "Illustrirtes Thierleben" on a grand scale. Nevertheless, he surprised the world four years afterward by voluntarily giving up this position and turning his back on Hamburg.

Brehm was also too busy at that time with his own enterprises to be able to devote his whole powers to responsible positions. His "Thierleben" occupied him closely, and required him to review the whole store of observations which he had collected, especially in his later years. What he himself thought of the subject is shown by the following passage of the prospectus which he wrote for the second edition, in 1876: "The activity of science has also worked fruitfully on the public desire for knowledge. The nearer view that is given to it of animals in Nature (in zoölogical gardens), the word spoken from the professorial chairs of the schools, and its multiplied repetition in writing and picture, have—each supplying its part—contributed to spread, with the knowledge of animals, interest in them and appreciation of them. Thus, man's approach to the forms of creation nearest related to him, his recognition of the existence and life of animals, has taught him that this circle of living beings includes its own life within itself, and simply with the entrance into it has much light been shed over the problem of his own origin, which a rigid dogma had long kept in darkness." In this passage he evidently referred to the then still new doctrine of descent of Darwin, but a sure tact preserved him from the mistake of permitting it to have any influence on his great work. The prospectus also gives information on this subject; for be says at the close of it, in the name of the publisher: "The question will come up with every one of what will be the attitude of this work toward the movement of our time which is leaving away behind itself the mark of exact research, and is losing its head in the regions of speculation. On this subject it is proper to remark that the author has not followed this movement in the present work; that he has kept aloof from the strifes of the learned and from brilliant conjectures; and in the well-understood interest of the layman, who will seek instruction through him, he has confined himself to demonstrated facts and established observations. No one, therefore, need fear that his faith or conscience will be damaged, or that he will have reason to be afraid on account of his similarity with monkeys." Brehm was also aware that he must in his treatise abandon the region of the systematic in which all other text-books of zoölogy were cast. "With the abandonment of the sterile domain of the systematic," he says again in his prospectus, "a rich field of observation has opened out before the eye of the naturalist." But be well understood that he could not include everything with this one-sided view, and knew that the naturalist could not be a fast-bound teacher, but must lead the life of a hunter and wanderer, as he himself had done till then. He considers expressly, in the preface to the second series of his "Thierleben," the manner in which readers will have to judge it: "The 'Thierleben' is not afraid of a stringent criticism. Whoever seeks in it what the title and the opening pages will justify him in looking for will not find himself deceived; for, if he will always keep the title in mind, he will not seek there for what he can not find." He was so fortunate as to have the aid, in preparing his first edition, of the gifted animal-painter Robert Kretschmer, of Leipsic. The two men were well acquainted with each other. They had both been attached to the Abyssinian expedition, Kretschmer as its artist; and the water-color illustrations of it, painted on the spot, which he brought home with him, are among the most beautiful of their kind. Brehm was, therefore, quite right in calling his first edition an illustrated "Thierleben"; those fresh, lively pictures, painted with such grasping perception and freedom from restraint, contributed greatly to pave its way to the public; without them, the success of the book, notwithstanding its excellent contents, would have been much smaller. Brehm wrote the first five volumes of his book between 1863 and 1868, while Oskar Schmidt and C. L. Taschenberg prepared the sixth volume, containing invertebrates. A second edition, in ten volumes, was published in 1868, and the following years. The great pains with which the whole work was gradually pushed to completion bore good fruit, and, when we state that the book was translated into most of the living literary languages, it is not necessary to say anything of the appreciation in which it was held by German-speaking people. A popular edition in three volumes was published 1888 to 1872.

During the publication of this great work, Brehm resided in Berlin, where, as in Hamburg, he occupied himself with introducing the public to the forms of life which were described in so masterly a manner in the "Thierleben." A joint-stock company was formed, with a capital of nine hundred thousand marks, for the establishment of a great aquarium, of which Brehm was given the direction. The position, however, did not suit him, for he found himself too closely hedged up for his comfort. The establishment he founded still remains one of the famous sights of the city, but he withdrew from it, to devote himself again to his literary labors, which he varied with lectures in different cities. Among his literary enterprises is a book in two volumes on "Captive Birds," which was published at Leipsic and Heidelberg in 1872.

Brehm again left his country, to pursue zoölogical researches, in 1876, when at the suggestion of Dr. M. Lindermann an expedition to West Siberia was organized in the Bremen Union for Arctic Exploration, the cost of which was defrayed partly by the Union and partly by private contributions and the Russian merchant Michaelovich Sibiriakoff. The expedition consisted of Dr. O. Finsch, Dr. A. Brehm, and Count Waldburg-Zeil-Trauchburg, who joined it as a volunteer. Its route extended over the Ural across the Ischim Steppe, and along the Irtish to Semipalatinsk, to the Arrat Mountains, through the land of the Kirghiz to the Dzungarian Ala-Tau, thence to Nor-Saissan, then over the Chinese Hoch-Altai and through the Altai crownland to the Obi, and lastly across the Tundra to the country of the Ostiaks and Samoyeds, whence Brehm returned home by way of St. Petersburg, where he stayed a short time to deliver lectures. Reaching home safely, he also delivered lectures there, upon the journey he had just performed. In the same year, 1877, he accepted an invitation from the Crown-Prince Rudolph of Austria, to whom he had dedicated the second edition of his "Thierleben," to go with him on an excursion to the forests of the middle Danube, of which the crown prince afterward published a sketch. Two years later, in 1879, he accompanied the crown prince to Spain. In 1880 he, on his own account, visited North America to deliver lectures. This visit had an unfortunate ending; he was attacked by a violent fever; and after he returned home, having gone to Renthendorf, he was prostrated with a disease of the kidneys which soon proved fatal. This premature ending of his life was the more deplorable, because the restless naturalist was engaged on a new natural history of animals, which was to have a very wide scope. In him passed away one of the noblest of Germans, a man to whom the animal world was a world full of spirit and inspiration.

  1. We are indebted for the materials of this sketch to an affectionate memoir of Dr. Brehm, published by Dr. Karl Müller in "Die Natur" of December 21, 1884.