The Zoologist/4th series, vol 1 (1897)/Issue 669/Obituary for Heinrich Gätke

Obituary: Heinrich Gätke  (1897) 
by Henry Eeles Dresser

Published in: The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 1, issues 669 (March, 1897), p. 139–140


Heinrich Gätke.

Of those ornithologists who have lately passed away there is none who has done better and truer work than Heinrich Gätke, who died peacefully on the island of Heligoland on January 1st last, at the patriarchal age of nearly eighty-four.

Born at Pritzwalk, Mark Brandenburg, on May 19th, 1813, Mr. Gätke, after getting what little schooling was there available, started in life as an artist, marine painting being the branch in which he took the greatest interest. At the age of twenty-three he visited Heligoland for the purpose of making studies, and, meeting there with a congenial helpmate, he married and settled on the island, and was from then resident until his death.

He was even then deeply interested in ornithology, for he at once commenced collecting specimens and making those careful notes on the migration of birds which he continued with the greatest patience and accuracy during a period of nearly sixty years. Essentially an observer and open-air naturalist, he worked year after year, amassing the rich collection of mounted birds which has of recent years become so widely known, and collecting valuable notes, which were entered in his journal with the greatest regularity. He lived a quiet, retired life, gaining his living by his pencil and brush, not publishing the result of his labours until comparatively recently; for his 'Vogelwarte Helgoland' was not issued until 1890, and then only owing to the assistance of Professor Rudolf Blasius, of Brunswick, whose father, the well-known ornithologist, Professor Johann Heinrich Blasius, visited Mr. Gätke in 1853, and was one of the first to call attention to the extent of his labours and the accuracy of his observations.

Various opinions of the deductions and arguments propounded by Mr. Gätke have been expressed by different ornithologists, but with these we will not deal here. Suffice to say that no one has found any reason to question his extreme accuracy, and there is no doubt that he has made the island the first ornithological observatory in Europe. Almost every inhabitant was trained by him to observe and note the coming and going of the various species which visit that island during the seasons of passage, and almost every rare or unknown bird was brought to him for identification.

Of very tall and commanding presence, with flowing hair and beard (he reminded one always of what one pictured King Lear to have been), Gätke possessed an extremely genial and pleasant manner, and was a most entertaining companion. Always ready to impart information, he placed his notes most unreservedly at the disposal of any ornithologist who visited the island; and it is well known that the various articles on migration published by the late Mr. Henry Seebohm were based almost entirely on data obtained during his visit to Heligoland from the note-books of Mr. Gätke.

The writer some years ago spent a fortnight on the island with Mr. Gätke, and can testify to his extreme anxiety to render the visit of a fellow-ornithologist as pleasant and instructive as possible; and a more home-like, happy circle than that in his house would be difficult to find. Although of German origin, he spoke and wrote English like an Englishman, and was in some respects even more English than German.

Those who have known and learnt to appreciate his sterling worth will grieve deeply for him; but though he has gone his work remains, and his 'Vogelwarte Helgoland' will stand as a monument of industry and careful observation, carried on during a long and useful life. His intellect remained unimpaired to the last few days, and his end was a most peaceful one, carefully tended as he was by his devoted family.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.