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.

Duke University

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