Monday 11 March 2013

Extraordinary Lives - Transylvanian Dinosaurs and the King of Albania

Last year Albania celebrated the centenary of it’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. This year we could also have been celebrating the centenary of the first gay king of Albania, Franz Nopcsa. The life of palaeontologist Franz Nopcsa reads like a Stephen Spielberg film – “Jurassic Park” meets Indiana Jones, with Franz as a cross between Indiana and Lord Byron! Franz and Byron had a lot in common – both loved the Balkans, both fought for independence against the Ottoman Empire, both have been pictured in local costume, and both could have become Balkan kings (Byron was mooted as king of Greece at one time).

There is a surprisingly large amount of information on Franz on the internet. It makes me wonder why someone so well-known isn’t more well-known, if you know what I mean. His work was ahead of its time and he didn’t restrict himself to just collecting fossils. Franz wanted to discover how those long-dead creatures lived, moved and had sex. As such he is often referred to as the Father of Palaeobiology. Several theories he came up with were criticised or ignored by his contemporaries. For instance, Franz believed some dinosaurs were warm-blooded; he believed some cared for their young and not desert the eggs like turtles do; he believed that fossils of Archaeopteryx (an early relative of birds descended from dinosaurs) show it couldn’t fly very well and must have lived on the ground. His contemporaries didn’t believe any of these but they are all now universally accepted (except the bit about the Archaeopteryx which is only partly accurate).

Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felsö-Szilvás was born into a wealthy aristocratic family on 3rd May 1877 in the Nopcsa Castle near Sačel in the Austro-Hungarian province of Transylvania. Franz became interested in fossils after his sister was shown some by peasants on their family estate and the 18-year-old Franz showed them to Eduard Seuss, one of the foremost palaeontologists in Europe. Seuss encouraged Franz to excavate his estate and soon Franz was also studying palaeontology in Vienna.

In only his second year at Vienna he identified the fossils his sister gave him as a new species (still known by the name he gave it, Telmatosaurus transsylvanicus) and presented a paper to the Vienna Academy of Science. This was to be the start of a long and prolific career as a writer of scientific papers, some 158 in all, as well as many others on Albanian culture, a culture he was fascinated by.

Illustration of Franz Nopcsa. Copyright Scientific American.
Franz was also one of the first supporters of the continental drift theory. In my post last month on the extraordinary life of Sir Francis Bacon I mentioned how Bacon noticed that the coastlines of Africa and South America matched. Many people did, but nobody at that time thought about the two having ever been joined together. Franz had contact with the major proponent of continental drift, Alfred Wegener. The idea was laughed at for many decades, even into the 1960s.

Franz proposed a theory of how the continental plates creating mountains and ocean trenches. He didn’t get the mechanics completely right, but he was the first to suggest it. This and the above-mentioned theories gained Franz a reputation for eccentricity.

Franz Nopcsa first visited Albania in 1903. It wasn’t a promising start. Albania was fighting against Ottoman rule and many rebels hid out in the mountains. On his first trip into the mountains Franz was shot at, and the bullet went straight through his hat – a classic Indiana Jones moment if ever there was one! But it didn’t put him off. He even learnt several local dialects and threw himself into aiding the rebellion, including smuggling weapons to the rebels.

In 1912 Albania threw out the Ottomans and a race was on to find a king for the new nation. Between 26th February and 6th March 1913 the Congress of Trieste, made up of international delegates, was held to choose an Albanian king. It was only after the congress had ended and none of the candidates were chosen when Franz put himself forward. He even suggested marrying an American heiress to provide money for the economy. But after several more weeks – a century ago – Franz got tired of waiting for a decision and pulled out of the race. Eventually Prince Wilhelm von Weid, nephew of the queen of Romania, was chosen by the European powers. He didn’t last long – he was deposed within a year!

Franz Nopcsa remained devoted to Albania, but his personal circumstances were going to take a dive. After serving as a spy for the Austro-Hungarian empire during World War I his family estates in Transylvania were annexed to Romania. However, he remained a Hungarian citizen and headed the Hungarian Geological Survey in 1925. Without the income from his estates his wealth quickly disappeared. Finally, he and his lover/secretary Bayazid Elmas Doda settled in Vienna.

On 25th April 1933, when he realised all his wealth has finally gone, Franz shot Doda, then himself.

All of Franz’s palaeological and geological papers were left to the British Museum, while his Albanian papers ended up in the Austrian National Library.

Bearing in mind Albania’s troubled history after independence in the first half of the 20th century perhaps Franz Nopcsa wouldn’t have lasted any longer than Prince Wilhelm von Wied anyway. Maybe that’s a blessing in disguise, because Franz continued to study fossils and write and contribute to our knowledge of dinosaurs and the continents. Perhaps it is time for his name to emerge from the shadows and take his rightful place in people’s minds as the King of the Transylvanian Dinosaurs.

No comments:

Post a Comment