Thursday, November 15, 2018

The first biospeleologist

Emil Racoviţă, one of the most distinguished of Romanian scientists, was born 150 years ago today. Though he lived in France for much of his life, it was in the Romanian city of Cluj that he opened the world’s first Institute of Speleology, his own speciality being the study of fauna found in caves. Early on in his career, he took part in a famous Belgian expedition to Antartica, and kept a diary of the expedition. Later, he kept diaries of some of his caving explorations - one of which can be found online at the National History Museum of Romania.

Racoviţă was born on 15 November 1868 into a well-off, cultured family near Iaşi in Romania. During his school years, he became passionate about the natural sciences though, to please his family, he studied law in Paris. After completing his law studies in 1889, he studied the natural sciences to degree level in 1891, and then undertook postgraduate studies, focusing on marine biology, achieving a PhD in 1896. Thereafter, he was selected to join an international research expedition to Antarctica, aboard the ship Belgica, under the aegis of Belgium’s Royal Society of Geography. Racoviță is considered the first researcher to collect botanical and zoological samples from areas beyond the Antarctic Circle. From Rio de Janeiro, he managed to sail ahead of the Belgica to spend three weeks in Punta Arenas studying the Amerindian population, fauna and flora, and exploring caves. Later on, the Belgica ran into considerable difficulties with ice, and two member of the team died; nevertheless the expedition, which returned to Europe in 1899, was considered a success.

Over the next year or two, Racoviţă lectured on the results of the voyage, in Paris and Brussels and in Romania. He settled in Banyuls-sur-Mer, on the Mediterranean coast near the border with Spain, as deputy director of the Arago laboratory. He was also co-editor of the journal Archives de zoologie expérimentale et générale. In 1904, during an expedition to study Cuevas del Drach, a cave system on the isle of Majorca with a large underground lake, Racoviţă discovered a new species of cave crustaceans. Thereafter, he decided to devote his studies primarily to, what he called, biospéologie - i.e. biospeleology, the study of organisms that live in caves. He went on to study many hundreds of caves across Europe, often with his young French assistant Hélène Boucard, who he married in 1907. That same year, he founded the journal, Biospeologica.

After the First World War, Racoviţă finally heeded calls from the Romanian government for him to return home. He was appointed professor of biology at the university in Cluj, and soon opened an Institute of Speleology, the first of its kind in the world. He remained its director until his death. He continued to take part in cave expeditions, particularly in the Carpathian mountains. From 1926 to 1929 he served as president of the Romanian academy. In 1940, when Cluj was given to Hungary under the so-called Vienna Award, Racoviţă and his institute took refuge in Timisoara, only returning to Cluj after four scientifically barren years. He died in November 1947, two days after his 79th birthday. A little further biographical information is available online, at Wikipedia (though a Google translation of the French Wikipedia page is more informative than the English one), Show Caves, Geni, and an archived Romanian Speleology page. There is also a good deal of information about the Belgica expedition in the journal Polar Research.

Racoviţă kept a diary, in French, during his Antarctic expedition. Some sources suggest this was published in 1899m but I can’t find any trace of it. However, it was published in 1998 by Fondation culturelle roumaine in Bucharest as part of Belgica (1897-1899): Emile Racovitza: le naturaliste de l’expédition antarctique Belgica: lettres, journal antarctique, conférences. Moreover, the National History Museum of Romania has, on its Capodopere 2019 website, some information about, and photographs of, a manuscript diary kept by Racoviţă in 1901-1902. It contains about 50 pages, of which 36 are filled with annotations and scientific observations concerning caves in Spain.

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