Schmidt-Nielsen Autobiography Details Scientific Adventures

May 12, 1998

DURHAM, N.C. - Indiana Jones would no doubt have hung up his famed hat and whip out of envious resignation had he read the new autobiography of Duke physiologist Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, The Camel's Nose: Memoirs of a Curious Scientist (Island Press, 1998).

While his students and colleagues might think of the distinguished, soft-spoken Schmidt-Nielsen as a much-honored researcher and teacher, he spins tales in his book of daring round-the-world scientific adventures from Saigon to the Sahara, from the Arctic to the Amazon, during which he conducted meticulous scientific experiments that have yielded startling revelations.

Along the way, he has feasted on such delicacies as badger, rattlesnake, anaconda, locust and fat-tailed lizards. He has figured out how to precisely weigh a camel, slept in a freezing desert among nomads, collected turtle tears and lugged a sackful of saltwater frogs through a coastal swamp in Thailand. And, he has suffered the indignity of having a pet baby desert fox nestled in his pocket experience diarrhea.

Schmidt-Nielsen, 82, is certainly the only physiologist ever honored with a bronze statue of himself contemplating a camel -- a sculpture now installed amidst a grove of trees outside the Duke Biological Sciences building.

He also is among the university's most decorated scientists, whose honors include membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of London, the French Academy of Sciences and, in 1992, the International Prize for Biology, the Japanese equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The last honor brought him a meeting with the Emperor and Empress of Japan. He also holds a lifetime investigatorship from the National Institutes of Health.

These honors came because of the success of his life's work on the study of how animals adapt to environmental extremes that would seem impossible. For example, he and his colleagues discovered how camels go for months without water by allowing their body temperatures to rise without sweating, and by tolerating extreme dehydration that would kill most animals.

He also has discovered how marine birds and turtles can ingest saltwater, protecting themselves by excreting the salt through special glands. And he and his coworkers discovered that desert rats manage to forego drinking by utilizing the water formed in food metabolism.

The book outlines his childhood in his native Norway, with a father who was a distinguished chemist and a mother who was a patient educator. Schmidt-Nielsen's interest in animal adaptation had a family history, for his grandfather was well-known for an experiment in which he introduced saltwater flounders to a freshwater lake in Norway.

Schmidt-Nielsen's college education began in mining and metallurgy, a field which he abandoned in favor of zoology. He went on to receive his advanced degrees from the University of Copenhagen.

"I have often wondered what made me a physiologist and not an engineer or a carpenter or a physician," he writes. "I could probably have managed reasonably well in any of those fields. But as I was always curious about animals, and because my father eventually permitted me to choose my own ways, I have enjoyed the excitement of a life spent in finding out how animals work."

His autobiography describes how he and his family arrived in the U.S. in 1946, on a coal ship, which was the only passage available. The book also relates the launching of his scientific career with stints at Swarthmore College, Stanford and the University of Cincinnati, and finally his arrival at Duke in 1952 as a professor of physiology. He was made a James B. Duke professor of physiology in 1963.

A researcher's scientific life is also colored by his personal one, and Schmidt-Nielsen tells of his own, including a family life of both storms and sunny romance and the tragic death of his older brother Klas and his daughter Mimi.

And vividly populating the book throughout is a fascinating, exotic menagerie whose many mysteries this curious scientist, in his half-century career, has explored, including camels, frogs, penguins, cormorants, gulls, kangaroo rats, turtles, snails, cows, crabs, jackrabbits, sheep, goats, crayfish, wildebeest, snakes, ostriches and stingrays.

"I hope readers will carry away from this book the realization that science can be very interesting and very, very rewarding," he said in an interview.
-end-


Duke University

Related Frogs Articles from Brightsurf:

Primates aren't quite frogs
Researchers in Japan demonstrated for the first time the 'spinal motor module hypothesis' in the primate arm, wherein the brain recruits interneuronal modules in the spinal cord rather than individual muscles to create movement and different modules can be combined to create specific movements.

Lost frogs rediscovered with environmental DNA
Scientists have detected signs of a frog listed extinct and not seen since 1968, using an innovative technique to locate declining and missing species in two regions of Brazil.

'Social distancing' saves frogs: New approach to identify individual frogs noninvasively
Amphibians possess diverse colour patterns and body markings that can be used to identify individuals, just like fingerprints for humans.

Bristol scientists see through glass frogs' translucent camouflage
Glass frogs are well known for their see-through skin but, until now, the reason for this curious feature has received no experimental attention.

Earth Day alert to save our frogs
With climate action a theme of Earth Day 2020 (April 22, 2020), a new research paper highlights the plight of some of the most at-risk amphibian species - and shortfalls in most conservation efforts.

Skulls gone wild: How and why some frogs evolved extreme heads
Beneath slick skin, some frogs sport spines, spikes and other skeletal secrets.

When frogs die off, snake diversity plummets
A new study in the journal Science, shows that the snake community become more homogenized and the number of species declined dramatically after chytrid fungus decimated frog populations in a remote forest in Panama.

World's largest frogs build their own ponds for their young
The first example of 'nest'-building in an African amphibian, the Goliath frog, has been described in a new article in the Journal of Natural History, and could explain why they have grown to be giant.

Skin bacteria could save frogs from virus
Bacteria living on the skin of frogs could save them from a deadly virus, new research suggests.

Frogs find refuge in elephant tracks
Frogs need elephants. That's what a new WCS-led study says that looked at the role of water-filled elephant tracks in providing predator-free breeding grounds and pathways connecting frog populations.

Read More: Frogs News and Frogs Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.