In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a Hungarian Baron became a paleontologist, traveling around Europe, excavating fossils, going on adventures, and producing innovative research on fossils, geology, and more. This episode, we discussed the life and work of Franz Nopcsa.
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Baron Franz Nopcsa, the Paleontologist
In 1895, so the story goes, young Ilona Nopcsa found some strange bones on the family estate in Transylvania, and she shared them with her teenage brother Franz, at the time a student of geology at the University of Vienna. These would become some of the first dinosaur bones Franz ever researched, the beginning of an historic paleontological career.
Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás was born in 1877, at a time when paleontology, geology, and evolutionary science as we know them were still fairly young. He grew up in a world where the Bone Wars were in full swing in North America, and biologists worldwide were arguing about Darwin’s theories. From his college days at the turn of the century to his tragic death in 1933, Nopcsa produced over 100 publications on paleontology, geology, and evolution, and he described and named over two dozen fossil species.
Perhaps the most famous of Nopcsa’s paleontological contributions is his work on the fossils of Transylvania (now part of Romania). Those first dinosaur bones his sister showed him would end up being named Telmatosaurus transsylvanicus, one of several dinosaurs he would study from this region. He was the first to recognize that the dinosaurs of this area were unusually small, and he correctly deduced that his homeland was once an island home to dwarf species, a 70-million-year-old example of island evolution.
Beyond that, Nopcsa was among the first paleontologists to use fossils to make inferences about soft tissues, physiology, behavior, and locomotion. He tried (unsuccessfully) to identify sexual differences in fossil dinosaurs; he examined the internal structure of bones (which we still do today!) to tell adults from juveniles; he speculated on dinosaur social behavior and the origins of bird flight; he combined his expertise in fossils, geology, and living bodies to usher paleontology into a more modern way of thinking.
Baron Franz Nopcsa, the Adventurer
Nopcsa spent many years traveling around Eastern Europe, particularly in Albania, studying not only geology but also culture. He became a leading expert in Albanian geography and folklife, publishing over 50 articles on these subjects.
By all accounts, Nopcsa was an eccentric guy who lived a remarkable life. He lived alongside the people of the Albanian mountains for years; he served as soldier and spy during the Balkan Wars and World War I; he attempted (unsuccessfully) to become King of Albania; he held the position of Director of the Hungarian Institute of Geology for several years. He’s been described as innovative, arrogant, charming, rude, fashionable, and audacious.
Nopcsa was joined in his journeys by an Albanian man named Bajazid Elmas Doda, who was Nopcsa’s secretary, traveling companion, and is generally agreed to have also been his romantic partner. Bajazid was reportedly a respectable geologist as well, aiding Nopcsa in fossil hunting and study. The two men met in 1906 and spent much of their lives together until 1933, when Nopcsa, citing “shattered nerves” as his reasoning, killed Doda and them himself in their home in Vienna.
DODA – The Life and Adventures of Franz Baron Nopcsa (documentary by Vis Production)
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