Micro Musings: The Eccentric Gay Man Who Founded Paleobiology

A spy, who almost was crowned King of Albania also published over 150 papers on paleontology and was among the first to use modern biology to interpret the fossil record.

(Cover Image Credit: One of Nopcsa’s dinosaur reconstructions alongside an image of him in his Albanian military garb. Public Domain)

Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás was a rather peculiar man. In many ways he was like Indiana Jones mixed with James Bond. He was a Transylvanian baron and an Austro-Hungarian spy. He was nearly crowned King of Albania, and toured Europe on months-long motorcycle rides with his secretary and lover.1,2

He was also an astounding paleontologist.

Nopcsa discovered 23 genera of fossil reptiles and 5 genera of dinosaurs, mostly around his family’s huge estate in what is now Romania. Nopcsa published several books and over 150 scientific papers related to paleontology. He was among the first to use the modern biology and physiology of reptiles and birds to interpret dinosaur fossils. He discovered the idea that fossils of unusually small adult dinosaurs who lived on islands (now known as insular dwarfism). He was one of the first paleontologists to suggest a direct evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs.

Yet I can almost guarantee you have never heard of Franz Nopcsa.

The question is why? Nopcsa lived a life of daring adventure in the mountains of Albania, scientific discovery, and randomly cruising through Europe on a motorcycle (which he loved so much he demanded to be cremated with). He seems destined to be the subject of a popular indie movie, maybe staring Johnny Depp (or someone with a little less baggage). And, unlike many of the men and women I’ve wrote about so far, he was well published in academic journals and spoke at conferences in Europe’s top paleontology institutions. He was widely known in his day as a brilliant paleontologist whose ideas were decade ahead of his time.

But again, we have never heard of him. Why?

First, let me briefly explain who Nopcsa was and what his contributions to paleontology were. I want to acknowledge that I picked Nopcsa in honor of Pride Month. I wanted to write about LBGTQIA paleontologists before I pick up my “Founding Five” narrative again. Be on the lookout, though. I’ll be revealing the fifth member of that cohort soon!

Happy Pride Month! Now, on to Franz Nopcsa.

James Bond Meets Indiana Jones

A young man dressed in traditional Albanian clothes holding a long rifle

Franz Nopcsa in traditional Albanian dress that he usually wore in his days in the country. (Public Domain)

Franz Nopcsa was the son of Hungarian aristocrats. His parents owned an estate in Transylvania (modern Romania) which at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nopcsa was intelligent and multilingual, and his status as a wealthy noble provided him with a wide array of opportunity (and funding) for scientific endeavors.1

In 1895, his younger sister discovered a fossil on the family estate and gave it to Nopcsa. He in turn took the fossil to Vienna where Eduard Suess, a paleontologist, brushed him off. He told Nopcsa to go figure out the fossil himself. Nopcsa took the professor’s direction to heart. He returned several years later having excavated the entirety of his estate with several new species of dinosaurs and reptiles and a complete set of writings on the “Dinosaurs of Transylvania.”2

His findings began his career in paleontology. He spent the next several years touring Europe in search of more fossils to study. In 1906, he decided to journey into the mountains of Albania. Here, he hired Bajazid Elmaz Doda from a local village to be his secretary. The two quickly fell in love and were inseparable for the rest of their lives. They traveled the whole of Albania together. Doda spoke the many local Albanian languages and allowed Nopsca access to areas he otherwise would never have seen.1

Portrait of a man who has short dark hair and a mustache in a suit and tie
Bajazid Doda, Nopcsa’s secretary and life long companion who was also a writer and Albanian ethnographer (Public Domain)

Nopcsa’s foray in the mountains of Albania did not go unnoticed. The Austro-Hungarian Empire hired him to be a spy in the region. For the next several years he worked in secret spying for the empire and helped gain intelligence in the region through World War I.1

At that time, Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire, but the Albanians long sought their independence from their overlords in Constantinople. Albanians began to rise up against Ottoman rule. Nopcsa worked alongside the Albanian rebels, and became a leader of the independence movement. After Albania won their independence, Albanian nobles held a council to elect a king for the new nation. Using his family’s wealth, Nopcsa tried to purchase the throne. His bid failed, and he soured on his once loved Albania. Defeated and dejected, he decided to focus on paleontology.1

The First Paleobiologist

A hand drawn sketch of a dinosaur with armored plates and spikes on its back and tail
Franz Nopsca’s sketch of a dinosaur he discovered, Struthiosaurus (Public Domain)

Nopcsa was a brilliant paleontologist and geologist whose ideas were decades ahead of his time. I already spoke to his prolific publications in paleontology, and for his innovative ideas on using modern physiology and biology to interpret the past. He made several ground-breaking discoveries about the physiology and paleobiology of Mesozoic reptiles and dinosaurs. He was also one of the first geoscientists to come out in favor for continental drift, the idea that led to our modern theory of plate tectonics.1

The dinosaurs Nopcsa discovered on his family estate were odd. They were much too small. His familiarity with modern physiology suggested that these were miniature adults, not underdeveloped juveniles. Nopcsa again used his knowledge of modern ecology to explain the tiny dinosaurs. In modern island settings, animals tend to grow much smaller than average in response to changes in evolutionary pressures in small island spaces. The example of this I always remember is the population of dwarf mammoths who lived on the European island of Crete that only stood 1 m (3 ft) high.

Nopcsa called this idea “Island Insularity.” His small saurians were representative of a community of animals living on a Cretaceous island. Nobody had used modern biology in this way to understand the fossil record. Many have therefore dubbed him “the founding father of paleobiology.”1,2

Nopcsa’s life was not all success. He suffered from manic depression (bipolar disorder). He would have months of frantic publication and research followed by months where he would disappear only to show up randomly to posh aristocratic parties dressed in rags. He would randomly drop everything he was doing and take off on his motorcycle around Europe or spend days on end in bed.1,2

His struggles with mental illness were compounded when, following WWI and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, his family lost their fortune. He no longer had the means to live the lifestyle he was used to and, without formal university affiliation, quickly fell out of the paleontological community.1

[Note: there are references to suicide below. If you’re not comfortable with that, skip to the next heading.]

The mental illness that plagued Nopcsa through his life finally got the better of him. In the 1930’s he became more erratic, often failing to show up to promised engagements. He sold off his entire fossil collection for next to nothing. On April 26, 1933 he woke up, shot Doda, who was asleep, and then shot himself. His suicide note suggests his mental illness became too much at the end of his life.1

Why Haven’t We Heard of Franz Nopcsa?

My main question still stands: why don’t we have our Hollywood blockbuster of the eccentric millionaire cruising through the Albanian mountains on a motorcycle with his lover while he did cool spy stuff? Or maybe, at the very least, why don’t we talk about Nopcsa on the same level as the other greats in paleontology?

Some have suggested it was because Nopcsa was gay. Clearly homophobia would be a convenient excuse as to why we brushed the poor man under the rug quickly after his death. However, contemporary sources show that Europe’s paleontology community knew of Nopcsa’s homosexuality and did not care. They instead point back to his mental illness as the cause. As the years went buy, Nopcsa became more erratic. His work was tossed aside because they were thought to be the rambling musings of a mad man who could one day be writing a treatise on reptile paleobiology and the next be a hundred miles away and unaccounted for.1

No matter what the reason is, I hope you will now think of Nopcsa as an important member of the history of paleontology. His story is tragic, but also important. He shows that the LBGTQIA community belongs in paleontology and has made important contributions to the science in the past.

And, maybe if we are all lucky, we can enjoy the story of a gay, motorcycle-loving paleontologist who was almost crowned king of Albania while acting as a spy on a covert mission. (Again, happy Pride Month!)

References

  1. Veselka, V. 2016. History forgot this rogue aristocrat who discovered dinosaurs and died penniless. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-forgot-rogue-aristocrat-discovered-dinosaurs-died-penniless-180959504/
  2. Bressan, D. 2011. Baron Nopcsa: More than just Transylvanian dinosaurs. Scientific American. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/history-of-geology/baron-nopcsa-more-than-just-transylvanian-dinosaurs/

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