May 3, 1877 (a Thursday)

Baron Nopcsa

Baron Nopcsa

On this date, the paleontologist Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás (or Baron Franz Nopcsa) was born in Transylvania, which at that time was a part of Austria-Hungary. Making no effort to hide his homosexuality, he was often dismissed as “whacky” by other scientists, yet he made significant contributions to the fields of paleontology, geology, and evolutionary biology. He was also fascinated by the language and culture of Albania and aspired to become king of that country.

A gifted student, Nopcsa graduated from the prestigious Maria-Theresianum in 1897. His younger sister Ilona having discovered fossilized dinosaur bones in 1895 at the family estate at Szentpéterfalva in Săcele (Szacsal), Transylvania, Nopcsa enrolled at the University of Vienna to study them. He advanced quickly in his studies; on 21 July 1899, at the age of twenty-two, he held his first lecture at the Academy of Sciences in Vienna on “Dinossaurierreste in Siebenbürgen” (“Dinosaur remnants in Transylvania”) and attracted much attention with it.

With the defeat of Austria-Hungary at the end of World War I, Nopcsa’s native Transylvania was ceded to Romania. As a consequence, the Baron of Felső-Szilvás lost his estates and other possessions. Compelled to find paid employment, he landed a job as the head of the Hungarian Geological Institute.

Bajazid Elmaz Doda (left) and Franz Baron Nopcsa (right), ca. 1931

Bajazid Elmaz Doda (left) and Franz Baron Nopcsa (right), ca. 1931

But Nopcsa’s position in the Geological Institute was short-lived. He moved to Vienna with his long-standing male Albanian lover and secretary Bayazid Doda (also known as Bajazid Elmas Doda) to study fossils. Yet there he ran into financial difficulties and was distracted in his work. To cover his debts, he sold his fossil collection to the Natural History Museum in London. Soon Nopcsa became depressed. Finally, in 1933, he fatally shot first his lover and then himself. In a letter left for the police, he explained that his decision to commit suicide was the result of a nervous breakdown. He also stated:

The reason that I shot my longtime friend and secretary, Mr. Bayazid Elmas Doda, in his sleep without his suspecting at all is that I did not wish to leave him behind sick, in misery and without a penny, because he would have suffered too much.

Nopcsa was one of the first researchers who tried to “put flesh onto bones”, which became his main contribution to paleontology – and hence “paleobiology”. That is, he was fascinated not with the bones but rather with the living animals to whom they had belonged. He wanted to understand the world of the dinosaurs and how they lived in it – how they moved, how they fed, how they mated, and so on. For example, Nopcsa was the first scientist to suggest that these reptiles cared for their young and exhibited complex social behavior. Another of Nopcsa’s hypotheses that was ahead of its time was that birds evolved from ground-dwelling, feathered dinosaurs, an idea that found favor in the 1960s and later gained wide acceptance.  Additionally, Nopcsa’s conclusion that at least some Mesozoic era reptiles were warm-blooded is now shared by much of the scientific community.

The last meal of Compsognathus, illustration by Nopsca (1903)

Nopcsa studied Transylvanian dinosaurs intensively, even though they were smaller than their relatives elsewhere in the world. For example, he unearthed six-meter-long sauropods, a group of dinosaurs that elsewhere commonly grew to 30 meters or more. Nopcsa deduced that the area where the remains were found was an island (now called Haţeg or Hatzeg basin in Romania) during the Mesozoic era. He suggested that “limited resources” found on islands commonly have an effect of “reducing the size of animals” over the generations, producing a localized form of dwarfism. Nopcsa’s theory of insular dwarfism – also known as the island effect – is today widely accepted. Additional pygmy sauropods were recently discovered in northern Germany (analyzed by P. Martin Sander in Nature, 8 June 2006).

As a result of his investigations and publications, Nopcsa is sometimes considered to be the father of modern paleobiology, even though his original term for the field was “paleophysiology.”

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