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The meaning of palaeontology

Palaeontologist Roman Kozlowski

The meaning of palaeontology

Dr Jan Zalasiewicz, from the University of Leicester's Department of Geology, writes about the eminent palaeontologist Roman Kozlowski.

It is the brief biographies at the end of the book that can catch one’s eye. The ending of many was all too similar. Take Professor Wacław Roszkowski, for instance. A zoologist, he studied in Kraków, Freiburg, Lausanne; travelled widely; was interested in the phylogeny, zoogeography and ecology of invertebrates; and was murdered by the Nazis in 1944. Then Dr. Adam Łuniewski, a geologist who studied at the Sorbonne and then in Warsaw: a Mesozoic biostratigrapher who also described fossil mammoths, he lived a little longer, dying in 1945 of typhus in Belsen. Or Aleksander Kelus, a palaeontologist who studied Devonian brachiopods; he survived the war, despite being active in the underground, but was arrested immediately afterwards (there are different types of peace) and died in 1946.

These were all – had all been - colleagues of one of the last century’s remarkable palaeontologists, Roman Kozłowski, whose eventful life has been described in a book recently published by his son, Witold Kozłowski. It is in itself a remarkable construction. In part it is a two-sided biography (there is a long preface by Adam Urbanek, Roman Kozłowski’s protégé, that paleontologist who followed in his footsteps and became almost equally well-known); in part it is autobiography (with some apologies for this that are entirely unnecessary, for they through essential light upon protagonist and context); and part meditation (admixed with his, Witold’s, poetry). I had been sent it by Anna Kozłowska, Roman Kozłowski’s grand-daughter and also a graptolite palaeontologist of distinction. Now, on part-holiday by the sublime shores of Lake Garda under a cloudless Italian sky , I could finally settle down to read it.

Today, Kozłowski has become a well-nigh legendary figure in palaeontology: the man who solved the mystery of what those strange but very useful fossils, the graptolites, were. Stick-like things more resembling those lacy ice crystals on a windowpane than anything living today, these fossils had encouraged all manner of speculation as to their affinities. Hydroids, for instance (a reasonable guess) -though I particularly like the exotic suggestion that they were (if my memory serves me true) the stings of ancient stingrays (now those would have been exciting Silurian seas for a time-traveller to swim through). Then, along came Kozłowski to dissolve marvellously-preserved Polish specimens out of cherts, to make the link – quite correctly – with that obscure but fascinating group of those colonial, submarine animal-architects, the pterobranch hemichordates.

Well, that’s the outline history. But the details in this book make the narrative considerably less linear. The history of Kozłowski’s discovery – and of his whole life – was governed by chance, the kind of chance when you live within the kind of history where human lives are blown along like so many leaves in a gale. He made the most of his chances, mind, and lived – perhaps partly because of that pervasive history – as though he was in charge of history: not in general, but more privately - of his own history, that is, and of that of those immediately around him. He certainly didn’t set out, though, as a young man, to solve the graptolite mystery, any more than Fleming set out to discover an antibiotic, or Pasteur determined to manufacture a vaccine.

He set out for Bolivia, instead. Not directly, perhaps (it is that kind of story), but as a glancing blow, as it were, from the turbulence of turn-of-the century central Europe. This is a history now rarely remembered, so overprinted it has been by the more dramatic – and more horrific – events that succeeded them. Poland was then – well, not a country, any more than is, say, Kurdistan today. It was a nation divided completely between Russia, Prussia and Austro-Hungary, having seen its fortunes decline – to nothing, at that stage, from a high point in the sixteenth century, when it was one of the great powers of Europe.

Divided, perhaps – but still a nation, nationalist sentiment expressed from abroad by Chopin, by the poet Mickiewicz, and by the novelist Sienkiewicz (best known in England – or rather dimly remembered, these days - as the author of the Roman-era saga Quo Vadis, but known to everyone in Poland for his novels set among the serial invasions of Poland of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the battles to repel the invading hordes: stories of the glory days, written deliberately to lift the spirits of the stateless people). For the Poles who stayed, there was day-to-day life under the ruling power (whichever it happened to be), punctuated now and then by protests or local trials of strength with the authorities.

Kozłowski was then a schoolboy in Włocławek, a town north of Warsaw. Teaching was in Russian – but in 1904 the pupils demanded to be taught in Polish. There was a stand-off between them and the school director, a Tsarist officer. There were demonstrations, marches; the pupils, including Kozłowski, went on strike. Eventually the striking pupils succeeded – up to a point. Polish schools were to be officially allowed – but were not to have any rights. Studies were resumed, but the atmosphere remained tense, with violence not far below the surface and sometimes breaking through – the head of police being shot dead in his own home the following year.

Kozłowski finished school and, then, to escape compulsory service in the Russian army, left for Paris, then Freiburg, then back to Paris, graduating from the Sorbonne in 1910, and then immediately starting studies with the palaeontologist Marcellin (‘Sam’) Boule that was to culminate in his first paper – Les fossils devoniens de Parana. A near neighbour, then, was Marie Curie, while it was at the Sorbonne that he met his wife-to-be, Maria Szmit, a botanist. The career had begun, and the South American connection was to continue, in earnest. In 1912, he sailed for Bolivia (later joined by Maria), and was to live there until 1921. He thus lived out the First World War in relative peace (he was not to be so lucky with the second).

In Bolivia, Kozłowski showed two of the qualities that were to characterise him throughout his long life: a talent for organisation, and a slow care and attention to detail in science. He founded, organised and directed (and persuaded the Bolivian government to fund), thus, the School of Mining Engineering in Oruro – the only school of its type in the country. It addressed a central concern of the country, for the tin mines (centred around Oruro) had bankrolled the country for the last couple of decades, taking advantage of the decline of Cornish tin. And it was in Oruro, at an altitude of 3750 metres above sea level, that the son Witold came into the world.

The father’s success as an organizer of practical teaching was undoubted (his fame lingers in the country still). But for the next couple of decades it was systematic palaeontology that predominated. He had amassed extensive collections in Bolivia, and studied them first at the Sorbonne (for his doctorate) and then later, on his return to a Poland that had regained its independence, where (eventually: the new country was short of funds) he obtained the newly-established Chair of Palaeontology at Warsaw University. At that time he worked on brachiopods, producing three monographs in the process (Kozłowski did not accrue as many publications as did some other palaeontologists, but the ones he did produce were not short of avoirdupois). His work was technically ingenious and meticulous, and labour-intensive too. He made serial sections to bring out the details of the internal structure, thermally shocked the material to loosen the shell material, acid-etched it to reveal further detail.

But then, that chance find of graptolites, preserved in cherts in the Holy Cross mountains, famously diverted his attention, and shaped a career. His colleague Jan Samsonowicz had shown him cherts of Tremadocian age, that contained some brachiopods. Kozłowski collected some material, but it was only six months later that he stumbled upon the organic remains of the graptolites, while he was trying to excavate some brachiopods from these specimens. The tiny blackened organic scraps may not have looked very imposing, but he quickly recognised their significance, and set about studying them, using all the ingenuity he had shown with the brachiopods.

He dissolved them from the chert with hydrofluoric acid, a technique pioneered by Carl Wiman in Sweden around the turn of the century . Kozłowski took Wiman’s technique, and characteristically developed it on an almost industrial scale, pioneering the embedding of the delicate acid-extracted remains in paraffin wax, so that they could be sectioned with a microtome, and so treated just as one might do the remains of a modern, just-dead organism. And from there, of course, he amassed the evidence to show the world that the graptolites were not hydroids or stingray stings, but closely (there is still some discussion over quite how closely) related to the modern pterobranchs. The story, though, was delayed. It almost didn’t see the light of day at all. Indeed, the odds at the very end were almost impossible. For the war was coming.

Life in those pre-war years was, if not idyllic, at least settled and peaceful for Kozłowski and his wife and his young family, including Witold, whose memories of that period are acute. Kozłowski was an organized and hardworking man. He rose early, did gymnastics, and was at his office by 6 a.m., to return by quarter to two. At two punctually was lunch, the main family meal. Then a short rest: and again to the office, returning at quarter to seven for supper at seven. He was also a family man - Sundays and holidays were entirely for the family - albeit strict and something of a disciplinarian of the old school (it was a serious thing for a child to be late for mealtimes).

Strict, perhaps, but the school was not so old, at that. Witold was a sensitive child (a trait which shows in the writing of his book); he loved animals to the extent that he simply did not want to eat them, and became a vegetarian. He also became an atheist. These were (and remain) unusual traits in Poland. His parents tolerated these characteristics, which was also a little unusual. Others did not. Children were quite as cruel in those golden pre-war years as they are today. Witold spent some time at a sanatorium, and his fellow playmates – once they found out that their little friend would not eat meat or join them in prayers – made life hell for him. They would leave pieces of meat in his bed or, showing particular refinement of imagination, dead frogs, that they had filled with air with a straw. Distraught, Witold wrote to his parents. Roman Kozłowski reacted immediately. He travelled to the sanatorium, and made it clear to the carers there that respect should be shown for the views of others – even for those of a ten-year-old boy. Wonder of wonders, the bullying stopped.

Similar symbolism is used at the entrance of the true storm. In September 1939, Witold and his father were on holiday in northern Poland, kayaking and swimming. There was there a tame swallow that used to fly to them. Watching it one day, they saw it suddenly fall, dead, into the water, knocked out of the air by someone’s slingshot. That was the start of the terrible memories. The air now included, too, enemy warplanes. Father and son returned to Warsaw as the Nazi army entered the country. This was a new reality. As the Polish army began their final, hopeless defence, Witold remembers his father – a man who cared for flowers and for order and cleanness – running into the street with a knife to cut meat off a dead horse.

There was a chance to escape that reality. In the early days of the occupation – when the pattern of arrests, of the deportations to the concentration camps was already becoming clear - the Bolivian ambassador called on Kozłowski, offering him and his family safe passage to that country. Kozłowski thanked him for the offer, but turned it down. He felt he had to stay in Poland to help – and this is probably an inexact translation – the Polish scientific legacy endure.

During the war he was employed as curator of the museum of the geological survey museum (renamed the Amt für Bodenforschung) in Warsaw. In truth, part of the legacy that Kozłowski had tried to build up was already smashed, as the observatory, with the geological collections (and with the manuscript of his work on graptolites), had been destroyed by bombing in the last few days of the defence of Warsaw. Typically, he and his colleagues and family had then combed through the ruins to rescue what they could.

During this time, his fate was entwined with that of another famous palaeontologist. Roland Brinkmann had been given the job by the Nazi administration, of directing the new institute. Brinkmann? I thought – he of that classic, painstaking study of Oxford Clay ammonites published in 1929, one of the most detailed stratigraphic and evolutionary studies ever undertaken (and, indeed, author of much more)? The very same, it turned out.

Brinkmann doesn’t emerge as a sympathetic character: choleric, irascible, and generally thoroughly unpleasant in manner to the Polish scientists under his direction. Worse, he seemed to do little to prevent the arrest by the Gestapo (and subsequent murder by them) of a Jewish geologist, Ludwik Horwitz, employed at the Institute. Was he really so bad? A few years after Brinkmann’s death, at the age of 97, Jerzy Głazek and Jerzy Znosko. two well-known Polish geologists published an account (2003) of Brinkmann’s life, focussing on those wartime years when his reputation was seemingly irreparably sullied. The reality – as ever – was more complex.

Brinkmann in fact was captured, a couple of years after the war, by the NKVD and sent to be tried for war crimes in Poland. He spent two years in jail there before being put before a tribunal. A death sentence, one might have thought, especially so soon after the war, when memories were still sharp and public sentiment was thoroughly anti-German. In fact, he was completely exonerated in the process, and returned to his career in Germany. How so?

Firstly, there was the context that he created. At the Institute, he provided employment for a good many Polish geologists, including Kozłowski. Some, indeed, he had released from Auschwitz to be employed there, somehow convincing the Gestapo that the work they could do (mapping out natural resources) was essential to the Third Reich.

Remarkably, also, there were no arrests at the Institute itself throughout his four-year tenure, despite the everyday risks of being picked up by the SS on the street. Brinkmann was aware of Polish underground activity there, carried out by Kozłowski among others, (as an old man, he met Znosko at an IGC meeting, and told him he had been perfectly aware of what was going on, not least by informers who came to him, unasked) but turned a blind eye.

His unpleasant manner was partly for real (before the war he was known as a dedicated scientist, a veritable engine of work – and also for his grumbling, his severity with students and colleagues, and his sarcasm) and partly also, it seems, camouflage. He had a wife and six children to keep safe as well as himself, and his own actions also were observed, not least because he had lost his job in Germany a couple of years before the war for expressing anti-fascist opinions. Within his lights, it seems he had tried, with some success, to walk the tightrope between morality and self-preservation – and perhaps personal ambition too. At the tribunal, there were people, such as the former Institute librarian under his regime, Dr. Regina Fleszarowa, who openly detested him as a person – but who nevertheless spoke in his defence.

The case of Ludwik Horwitz, too, was not straightforward. Brinkmann had given him not only a job at the Institute, but also lodgings there for him and his wife. Horwitz was a Polish Jew, and all too obviously looked like one. Out on the streets, he would be picked up sooner or later. In the Institute, buried amongst the many employees, he had a chance if he kept his head down. He didn’t. At a scientific meeting attended by prominent Nazis, he spoke up first in discussion. It was a suicidal action, drawing attention to himself. Thrown out of the Institute, the Gestapo soon picked him up. Could Brinkmann have saved him? According to one account he tried, but was sent away by the Gestapo with a flea in his ear; Horwitz had obviously already been shot. War, as General Sherman observed quite some time ago, is all hell.

In the strange parallel lives of those wartime years, Kozłowski looked after the collections as best as he could, and also took part in the underground university movement which, in secret and in considerable peril, tried to preserve ‘normal’ study and academic endeavour in those terribly abnormal times. There were other forms of resistance. Kozłowski and his colleagues hid the best specimens in the basement, so that only less important material was exported to the collections of the Third Reich. Witold organized secret concerts and poetry readings – a kind of salon of the underground.

Strange, perhaps, to consider that in times as hard as these, the priority was not simply the basics of human existence: food, water, physical security. Rather, lives were risked (and lost) to preserve what might be considered a luxury in happy and stable times – academic study, museum collections, the arts. It’s the essence of humanity, perhaps, the keeping alive of a sense of a culture, a way of life, of what palaeontology (by way of specific instance) means in its widest sense, and what might be lost if it disappeared.

Some stability was kept in the war years. Most of Kozłowski’s family survived, though not all (his other son, Jan, had a heart condition; the effort he put to trying to help keep the family fed brought on a fatal haemorrhage). The last throes of the war shattered that precarious stability. The family was caught up in the Warsaw uprising, the house destroyed, the family dispersed, Witold himself arrested once by the Nazis, but rescued – bought out – by a colleague. Eventually, though, the war ended. Reconstruction could begin.

After the war, Kozłowski could return to his studies, and finally publish his ground-breaking study, essentially completed before the war, that finally pinned down what those enigmatic graptolites essentially were. But it almost, almost didn’t happen. If there are miracles in palaeontology, then this was one. The story of how the work survived is related in a rather more linear fashion - and in English - in a dedication to Kozłowski published by two of his most gifted students, Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska and Adam Urbanek in 1978, the year following his death.

During the initial Nazi bombardment of Warsaw, Kozłowski had hidden the text and his original specimens in the observatory basement. The hiding place didn’t survive the bombing and subsequent occupation. A month later, though, he found some of the pages among the ruins; a colleague found more later in a snowdrift. During the Warsaw uprising, he hid the text, again, in the central heating pipes of his house. The house was destroyed, yet the document somehow survived in its hiding place. He had sent negatives of the plates to Paris before the war and, retrieving these also, managed to reconstitute the entire manuscript and publish, eventually, in 1949.

In Witold’s account, the post-war years are less revealing, more opaque - perhaps because the wartime experiences had been so acute. In Roman Kozłowski’s life, the drive towards organization rather than research seems to have taken the upper hand once more, perhaps because here was so much to rebuild (and perhaps because, once more, the world of science in Poland needed dedicated and organized advocates, when there were so many demands on the few resources that were then available). He returned to re-establishing the teaching of palaeontology at Warsaw University, using his pre-war contacts to acquire books and journals from around the world for the library, and re-building the collections (initially, once more, from those that could be retrieved, once more, from among the ruins). Of the politics of those days – especially of the Stalinist times of the early 1950’s – there is little. Perhaps there had been enough of hardship in the account.

Perhaps, simply, we should be grateful that so much was preserved, despite the odds. And, that the science continues, as new generations develop the science. We might hope that the vicissitudes of the future world will be less testing for those generations (for vicissitudes there are bound to be: who among us would like to bet on the rest of this century being placid and trouble-free?). Maybe the search for the past, though, with such past form, really will be never-ending.


Głazek, J. & Znosko, J. 2003. Profesor Roland Brinkmann (1898-1995); życie, pomówienia i fakty – przyczynek do okupacynej historii geologii w Polsce. Przegląd Geologiczny 51, 299-305.

Kielan-Jaworowska, Z. & Urbanek, A. 1978. Dedication: Roman Kozłowski (1889-1977). Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 23, 415-425.

Kozłowski, W. 2008. Nie stracą lotu gołębie ani kwiaty barw: rzecz o moim Ojcu paleontologu profesorze Romanie Kozłowskim i o sobie samym. Warszawa Drukarnia Naukowa Polska Akademia Nauk, Warszawa.

Jan Zalasiewicz

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