Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/April 1898/Sketch of Carl Semper

PSM V52 D742 Carl Semper.jpg


CARL SEMPER is characterized by Dr. August Schuberg[1] as a student who, while being especially thorough in a particular line of research and generally preferring it, was remarkably free from, that kind of specialism which is so common and often detrimental to science as a whole. "There are few investigators who have made themselves so familiar with the most various groups of the animal kingdom through their own researches as he; and he most catholicly busied himself with all branches of zoölogy—anatomy, histology, embryology, physiology and general biology, systematic biology, and geographical distribution—in all of which he pursued his own lines of investigation, so that it may be said that there are few regions of zoölogy which he did not explore." He was also an industrious student in anthropology and ethnology.

Carl Gottfried Semper was born at Altona, July 6, 1832, the son of the manufacturer Johann Carl Semper, and died at Würzburg, May 29, 1893. He attended the gymnasium of his native city till he reached the Secunda, and then entered the school for naval cadets which was founded by the "Provisional Government" of Schleswig-Holstein at Kiel in 1848. Not finding the conditions here very attractive, he joined the artillery as a volunteer and engaged in a brief campaign against the Danes. When Schleswig Holstein was given up to Denmark, he, by his father's advice, attended the Hanover Polytechnic School from 1851 to 1854. At the University of Würzburg (1854 to 1858) he gave special attention to comparative morphology and histology. Having received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Würzburg in 1856, he continued his studies there and at the Kiel High School in 1857, and in November of that year started on a tour through Germany, France, and Spain, the object of which, he said, was partly study in the museums and libraries, and partly to find associates who would join him in a more extensive scientific journey. His intention, in which he was encouraged and assisted by his liberal-minded father, was to visit the Philippine Islands, alone if he should not find suitable companions. In the hope that he might thereby further advance his scientific purposes, as well as in order to gratify his taste for a sea life, he determined to make the voyage on a sailing vessel. Reaching Manila in December 1858, he devoted the first half year of his stay there to making himself acquainted with the country and the people and to mastering the language, and, limiting his zoölogical rambles at first to the neighborhood of the town, did not undertake any more extensive excursion till August, 1859, when he went to the southern part of the Philippines. During a residence of seven months at Zamboanga and on Basilan, in addition to his zoological and other scientific researches, he studied the anthropology and ethnology of the Mohammedan Malays living there. Returning to Manila in March, 1860, he began the next month a second long journey to the northeastern part of the island of Luzon, where, besides zoölogical studies, he had an opportunity to become acquainted with the heathen tribes of Malays and collect much new and valuable anthropological and ethnographical material.

His activity was interrupted for several weeks by illness, and, following the advice of a physician, he embarked for the Pelew Islands, where he intended to study the coral formations. His vessel was leaky and unseaworthy, and the voyage was lengthened by the necessity of running in often at the different islands for repairs. His stay at the Pelew group was prolonged for months by delay in putting the vessel in proper condition for the return voyage, and he suffered great hardships, but formed very pleasant relations with the natives; and this, with the richness of the scientific and ethnological treasures he acquired, was ample compensation for all.

Having returned to Manila, he was married to Anna Hermann, of Hamburg, and they soon afterward went to the island of Bohol, north of Mindanao, whence he in the same year (1862) made brief excursions to the neighboring islands of Cebú, Leyte, and Mindanao. The last of the series of expeditions from the Philippine Islands was made to the interior of Mindanao from May till December, 1864; and in May, 1865, Semper left Manila for home.

Near the close of this year Semper was licensed by the Philosophical Faculty of Würzburg as Privat Docent in zoölogy. In February, 1869, he was appointed professor extraordinary. Ten days later he became a temporary supply for Professor Leiblein, who was ill, and on Leiblein's death, in August of the same year, he was appointed regular professor and director of the zoölogical cabinet. In 1870 he was invited to go to Göttingen, but decided to remain at Würzburg.

This preference was recognized by the authorities of the university in an assurance that a reorganization of the zoölogical cabinet—the arrangement of which was poorly adapted for purposes of instruction—should be begun, to be completed in five years. Professor Semper proceeded at once with a provisional rearrangement, and with the foundation of a museum of comparative anatomy; and the former zoölogical cabinet was named by the Academical Senate in December, 1871, the Zoölogical Zoötomical Institute. The number of his pupils increased, and many valuable studies were undertaken by them under his lead and at his suggestion; but all their work was hampered by want of means and of space. A site for a building had been granted the university by the city authorities of Würzburg in 1875, but no building money had been appropriated, and the question of the way in which funds could be obtained offered a serious problem.

His work at Würzburg suffered several interruptions. During the war of 1870 his characteristic energy found full sway in the direction of the transportation of provisions and hospital furnishings to the seat of hostilities, in which he was several times engaged. A sojourn in Heligoland in 1873 and 1874, and a visit of a few months in 1876 in company with some of his pupils to the Balearic Islands, were of much advantage to his scientific work. Most important results of his residence in Heligoland were his thorough investigations of the excretory organs of the shark.

In 1877 Professor Semper was invited to deliver the Lowell Institute Lectures in Boston, and improved the opportunity to travel over the western part of our continent. The substance of the twelve Lowell Lectures was afterward embodied in the book, Animal Life as affected by the Natural Conditions of Existence, which was published as No. 30 of the International Scientific Series, and is characterized by Dr. Schuberg as one of his most important works.

In 1887 Professor Semper suffered a stroke of apoplexy, by which his life was immediately endangered and his vigor was permanently weakened. For a short time he seemed to recover very rapidly, but the evidence of advancing disease which was destined to end in his death became gradually plainer. Still, he would not spare himself, but labored on, as he had done in his younger days, to his injury.

One joy, however, was still to be afforded him. The Bavarian Landtag in 1887 voted money for the erection of a zoological institute. He was permitted to have this building constructed according to his own views. It was ready for use in November, 1889, and he was able to enjoy it for a short time; but his health continuing to fail, he was not permitted to carry on the investigations for which it had been constructed, and was compelled to ask to be relieved of the work of teaching at the end of the year 1892. His successor as director of the institute was appointed at the beginning of the summer semester of 1893, and his own death followed shortly afterward.

The versatility by which Professor Semper was distinguished, and of which we have spoken at the beginning of this sketch, was rarely favored, in Professor Schuberg's view, by his long sojourn in the tropics; for when one is so situated, as he was then, as to be able to spend seven years and a half in the study of the exceedingly diversified and interesting animal forms of luxuriant tropical nature, without being concerned about outside conditions and without having any other duties, he enjoys facilities and is assisted to an extent which few zoölogists can hope for; and he used these opportunities in a manner which attests his extraordinary energy and his capacity to give equal and impartial attention to every branch of his science. His earlier works, before going to the Philippine Islands, and his first researches there were in comparative morphology and histology. As his investigations continued, they were extended to numerous and diversified animal groups, and gave rise to many important discoveries. Of special interest among his publications concerning these researches were his papers on the origin of coral reefs, on the Trochosphœra, and on the alternating generations of stone corals. Of special permanent value likewise are his monographs on holothuria and land mollusks. He busied himself, too, with questions of geographical distribution and general biology; and he is credited by Professor Schuberg with having contributed much to the building up of Darwin and Wallace's doctrine of descent, by his efforts to bring some of the questions nearer solution, and by his objective criticisms. Two works are especially mentioned which advanced the discussion of the questions raised by the theory of descent. One of these embodies a series of connected investigations, the results of which go to close a gap which had to be bridged if the theory of descent were to be set upon a stable foundation. Professor Semper, almost simultaneously with the Englishman Balfour, had made the important discovery of the presence of structures in sharks, both embryos and full grown, which attested a conformity of the structure of the urogenital system of vertebrates with that of the annelids; and he believed that he had at last found the bridge which was to be laid from the vertebrate to the invertebrate type. Thus arose, in the building up of the theory based upon this first observation, a series of researches, in which he tried to demonstrate a conformity in structure of the vertebrates and the articulate worms for other organs than the urogenital apparatus, and materially promoted the solution of extremely important problems of animal morphology, particularly those of segmentation, budding, and strobilation.

Professor Semper did not succeed in obtaining general acceptation of his views on the derivation of vertebrates, but the observations and arguments on the special point, and on general questions, too, set forth in the works relating to them, exercised a remarkably stimulating influence on the further discussion of the problems involved.

The second work in which Professor Semper considered the zoölogical problems raised by Darwin's theory is the book on Animal Life as affected by the Natural Conditions of Existence. The fundamental thought of this book, as defined by the author in his preface, was that, as Jaeger had said, enough had been done in the way of philosophizing by Darwinists, and the task now presented was to apply the test of exact investigation to the hypotheses that had been laid down. Without pretending to have made a complete presentation, his end would be attained if he should have given an impulse to research, on however small a scale, so long as it should be systematically conducted and thoroughly carried out—"if only it should contribute to extend my own conviction as to the uselessness of casual and disconnected observations." The book is described by Dr. Schuberg as a remarkably stimulating one, and no compilation; for, besides permeating and enriching the subject with numerous new thoughts, he incorporated in it a very large number of his own observations, made for the most part during his voyages. Professor Semper further contributed to the literature of zoölogy numerous smaller and special papers, a considerable proportion of which, his own, or composed with the co-operation of his pupils, were published in the Arbeiten aus dem Zoölogisch Institut in Würzburg.The whole list of his writings, as given by Dr. Schuberg in the biography published in that journal, comprises ninety titles.

Professor Semper contributed also to other fields of literature. His journeys in the Philippine Islands took him into regions rarely visited by Europeans, and of the anthropology and ethnology of which little was known. He included these features within the range of his studies, and was able to cast considerable light upon them. Besides single essays, two works are especially worthy of notice as fruits of his industry in these lines of research—The Philippine Islands and their Inhabitants, which treats of the geographical and ethnological aspects of the group; and The Pelew Islands of the Pacific Ocean, presenting a corresponding view of that still less known region. In 1869 he became one of the editors of the Archiv für Anthropologic. Considerable literary value also attaches to his academical lectures.

Professor Semper had a rare art of attaching his students to himself. His manner of meeting and greeting them attracted them. His intercourse with them was friendly and cordial, and was not confined to the hours of instruction. The students of the Würzburg Institute, Dr. Schuberg says, when Professor Semper was in the height of his power as a teacher, constituted a family, of which he was the head. He knew how to pick out the students inclined to independent thought, to draw out their peculiar traits, and to prompt each of them to develop his individuality, or cultivate his habit of independence. Hence, although he had many students, he formed no "school."

A writer in the London Spectator, visiting the Zoölogical Gardens in Amsterdam, was much interested in the colony of nesting cormorants on one of the small canals crossing parts of the grounds, where the "domestic side of cormorant life could be seen at close quarters." The birds carried on there their daily work of "fishing, nest-building, sitting on eggs, rearing the young, quarreling for 'stands' for future nests, or basking in the sun within a couple of yards of the path. At the time of the writer's visit there were five nests built close to the water. They were made of large sticks piled to a height of from two feet to three feet. One held a pair of young cormorants, covered with close, black down. In the second were three birds of rather larger growth. On a third nest an old hen bird was still sitting on her eggs, while the cock kept guard on the ground in front. The compact and glossy plumage of both shone with gleams of black and purple luster, set off by the pale yellow skin on the cheek and bill. The cormorant is not usually credited with beauty, but, like the starling, it is a lovely bird in the breeding season, when the sight of the old cock rushing to battle with all intruders, exchanging rapierlike thrusts of the beak with his enemies, croaking, swelling his throat, and even throwing himself on the ground to prevent access to the nest, makes a pretty illustration of bird courage. All this fuss and excitement is confined entirely to the male birds. The hens are quite ready to see a little company when sitting; and two were seen sitting side by side on eggs laid in a joint nest."

Carl Vogt's publication of his theory of microcephalism caused great offense in certain circles in Germany, and even the children in the streets would sometimes call after him "Affenvogt." William Vogt relates in his Vie d'un Homme that, desiring to examine a specimen of microcephaly in a strictly closed convent at Eger, Carl took advantage of the doors being opened for General de Gablenz, and attached himself to his party. They were all received cordially and given the freedom of the house. The friar pastor exhibited as the greatest curiosity of the convent "a real man-monkey," a microcephal, which Vogt examined at great length. While he was measuring its angles, the monk exclaimed: "A real man-monkey, isn't it? Wouldn't that pestilent monster of a Carl Vogt be happy if he could see it! I am not malicious, but if he should come within a league of this place he would be lost!"

  1. In Arbeiten aus dem Zoologisch-zootomischen Institut in Würzburg, in an article whence the material for this sketch is derived.