Konrad Lorenz

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Konrad Lorenz : biography

November 7, 1903 – February 27, 1989

Honours and awards

  • 1964 Austrian Decoration for Science and Art
  • 1969 Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science
  • 1972 Gold Medal of the Humboldt Society
  • 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
  • 1984 Grand Cross with Star and Sash of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (Großes Verdienstkreuz mit Stern und Schulterband)
  • 1984 Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art

Biography

In his autobiographical essay, published in 1973 in Les Prix Nobel (winners of the prizes are requested to provide such essays), Lorenz credits his career to his parents, who "were supremely tolerant of my inordinate love for animals," and to his childhood encounter with Selma Lagerlof’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, which filled him with a great enthusiasm about wild geese.

At the request of his father, Adolf Lorenz, he began a premedical curriculum in 1922 at Columbia University, but he returned to Vienna in 1923 to continue his studies at the University of Vienna. He graduated as Doctor of Medicine (MD) in 1928 and became an assistant professor at the Institute of Anatomy until 1935. He finished his zoological studies in 1933 and received his second doctorate (PhD). While still a student, Lorenz began developing what would become a large menagerie, ranging from domestic to exotic animals. In his popular book King Solomon’s Ring, Lorenz recounts that while studying at the University of Vienna he kept a variety of animals at his parents’ apartment, ranging from fish to a capuchin monkey named Gloria.

In 1936, at an international scientific symposium on instinct, Lorenz met his great friend and colleague Nikolaas Tinbergen. Together they studied geese—wild, domestic, and hybrid. One result of these studies was that Lorenz "realized that an overpowering increase in the drives of feeding as well as of copulation and a waning of more differentiated social instincts is characteristic of very many domestic animals." Lorenz began to suspect and fear "that analogous processes of deterioration may be at work with civilized humanity." This observation of bird hybrids caused Lorenz to believe that interbreeding between different human races might also cause dysgenic effects, and that the Nazi eugenics policies against "race mixing" were therefore scientifically justified.

In 1940 he became a professor of psychology at the University of Königsberg. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1941. He sought to be a motorcycle mechanic, but instead he was assigned as a military psychologist, conducting racial "studies" on humans in occupied Poznań. The objective was to study the biological characteristics of "German-Polish half-breeds" to determine whether they were psychologically and physically fit to be allowed to reproduce. Those who were judged unfit were sent to concentration camps.

He was sent to the Russian front in 1944 where he quickly became a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1948. In captivity he continued to work as a medic and "got quite friendly with some Russians, mostly doctors." When he was repatriated, he was allowed to keep the manuscript of a book he had been writing, and his pet starling. He arrived back in Altenberg (his family home, near Vienna) "with manuscript and bird intact." The manuscript became his book Behind the Mirror. The Max Planck Society established the Lorenz Institute for Behavioral Physiology in Buldern, Germany, in 1950.

In 1958, Lorenz transferred to the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Physiology in Seewiesen. He shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for discoveries in individual and social behavior patterns" with two other important early ethologists, Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch. In 1969, he became the first recipient of the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca.

Lorenz retired from the Max Planck Institute in 1973 but continued to research and publish from Altenberg and Grünau im Almtal in Austria.

Lorenz died on February 27, 1989, in Altenberg.

Lorenz was also a friend and student of renowned biologist Sir Julian Huxley (grandson of "Darwin’s bulldog", Thomas Henry Huxley). Famed psychoanalyst Ralph Greenson and Sir Peter Scott were good friends.