Karl von Frisch Biography (1886-1982)


Karl von Frisch won the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his pioneering work in the field of animal physiology and behavior. Frisch was a leading researcher in thestudy of insect behavior, and his studies proved that fish have acute hearing and that bees communicate effectively through a ritual dance. Frisch's discoveries and subsequent Nobel Prize were also significant because this was thefirst major acknowledgement of advances made in the study of ethology.

Frisch was born in Vienna in 1886 into a family dedicated to science. His father, Anton Ritter von Frisch, was a physician, and his mother, Marie Exner, came from a long line of distinguished scientists and scholars. From his earliest years, Frisch was exposed to the natural world, in large part due to a country house that his family retreated to every summer. There, the young Frisch spent his time collecting various species of animals. "Even before I went to school," he wrote in his autobiography, A Biologist Remembers, "Ihad a little zoo in my room." But Frisch was not simply a collector; he was also a keen observer. "I discovered that miraculous worlds may reveal themselves to a patient observer where the casual passer-by sees nothing at all," hesaid in his autobiography. A few early observations--most notably that the sea animals he collected in an aquarium in his room waved their tentacles whenhe turned on the lights--piqued an interest in the sensory systems of animalsthat would last his lifetime.

By the time Frisch reached college age, it was clear that his interests werefocused on zoology. Nevertheless, his father thought medicine a more practical field than zoology, and in 1905 Frisch enrolled as a student of medicine atthe University of Vienna. Medical school, Frisch later wrote, proved invaluable in providing a background in histology, anatomy and human physiology. Hestudied with his uncle, Sigmund Exner, who was a renowned physiologist and lecturer at the university. Though Exner taught human physiology, he encouragedhis nephew to pursue his interest in animals by aiding him in a research project on the position of pigments in the compound eyes of certain beetles, butterflies and crustaceans. According to Frisch, his uncle's openness toward the study of animals in a course limited to human physiology was unheard of atthe time. Comparing the physiology of humans and animals would only later beseen as so invaluable that it was made into a separate discipline. In the middle of his third year as a medical student, Frisch found himself increasinglyfrustrated by the "medical character" of the curriculum. He finally decidedto drop his medical studies to pursue the field of ethology, or the study ofanimal behavior. He transferred to the Zoological Institute at the Universityof Munich, where he studied under Richard von Hertwig. He continued to cultivate the interests he had developed under his uncle's leadership, researchinglight perception and color changes in minnows. It was at this time that he discovered minnows had an area on the forehead filled with sensory cells--a "third, very primitive eye," he called it in A Biologist Remembers. This explained why blind minnows reacted to light by changing color in the sameway as minnows with sight. Frisch wrote his doctoral thesis on this subjectand received his degree in 1910.

Frisch also began to question the common assumption of the time that fish andall invertebrates were color blind. He successfully trained minnows to respond to colored objects, proving that they could perceive color. These findings, however, were not kindly received by members of the scientific community, and Frisch's most notable opponent was Karl von Hess, the director of Munich Eye Clinic. The debate arose partly because of the theoretical connection between Frisch and the views of the famous naturalist Charles Darwin. Frisch believed in Darwinism, which theorized that the survival of certain species of animals depended on the development of their senses. Frisch hypothesized that animal behavior, rather than simply being a fixed mechanism, had an "adaptivebiological significance," assumptions that were still a source of disagreement among scientists at the time. Despite the arguments about his research, Frisch was offered a teaching job at the University of Munich in 1921.

While teaching at the University of Munich, Frisch continued to study color perception in animals on vacations spent at his family's summer home. Having proved that color-blindness in fish was a fallacy, he turned to prove the same for bees. He conjectured that the adaptive purpose of the bright coloration of flowers was to guide bees to nectar. The bees, in turn, aided the flowers through pollination. That bees would be color-blind seemed untenable to Frisch. To test his hypothesis, he used research strategies similar to theones he had used with fish. He conditioned their behavior by placing drops ofsugar water on squares of blue-colored cardboard. He then placed these bluesquares among plain gray squares. Eventually, he placed blue squares withoutsugar water among the gray squares. He found that the bees continued to go tothe blue squares for their food, proving that they could differentiate color.

In 1914 Frisch's research was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Hewas excused from military duty because of poor eyesight but accepted a plea from his brother, who was a physician, to volunteer at a Red Cross hospital indire need of help. His background in medical school qualified him to establish a bacteriologic laboratory at the hospital, enabling rapid diagnosis of diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid. While at the hospital, he meta nurse, Margarethe Mohr, whom he married in 1917. Eventually they had threedaughters and a son.

Meanwhile his research on bees continued to deepen. During the war, he wouldtake a few weeks' leave from the hospital every summer, returning to his country house to research the bees. As the war came to an end, his work at the hospital lessened and his students returned to the Zoological Institute. Aftera 4-year hiatus, he began teaching again and in January 1919 became an assistant professor.

Eventually Frisch became interested in scout bees--those that left the hive to explore a region for food. He set out dishes of sugar water and observed their behavior. When the dish was empty a scout bee occasionally came to the dish. When the food dish was full the scout would return in a matter of minuteswith a whole company of bees. "It was clear to me that the bee community possessed an excellent intelligence function," Frisch wrote in his autobiography, "but how it functioned I did not know."

In the spring of 1919 Frisch developed a glass cage in which he placed a single honeycomb that could be observed from all sides. Through continuous observation and experimentation, Frisch concluded that scout bees, who foraged forfood for the whole honeycomb, conveyed this information to the other bees byperforming a kind of dance on the honeycomb. This dance excited the forager bees, who then flew directly to the food. In retrospect, Frisch called his first discovery of the bees' dance "the most far-reaching observation of my life." It would be another 20 years before Frisch fully understood the complexityof this dance.

In the fall of 1921, Frisch was appointed professor of zoology and director of the Zoologic Institute at Rostock University and began investigating whether fish could hear. The physiology of fish indicated that they could not. Theydid not have any of the characteristics thought to be necessary for the sense of hearing, like ear lobes, auditory canals, middle ears, or a cochlea in the inner ear, which was thought to be the center of hearing in humans. Frischused his proven methods of behavior conditioning to test hearing in fish. Hewhistled to blind catfish before feeding them. Eventually he whistled but did not feed them and the catfish continued to respond. The answer seemed simple--or, as one skeptical scientist put it, "There is no doubt. The fish comeswhen you whistle." Frisch eventually refined his early research in this areawith the help of his students and discovered other facts that supported his initial findings.

In 1925 Frisch began working at the Zoological Institute of the University ofMunich. However, during World War II, the Zoological Institute at the University was destroyed, and Frisch spent those years in his country home and at the University of Graz. In 1950 he returned to Munich to rebuild the Instituteas its director. During this time, he wrote many books for the general public as well as for the scientific community. Frisch retired in 1958 and died in1982.

About his life's work, Frisch wrote philosophically in A Biologist Remembers: "The layman may wonder why a biologist is content to devote 50 years of his life to the study of bees and minnows without ever branching out into research on, say, elephants, or at any rate the lice of elephants or the fleas of moles. The answer to any such question must be that every single species of the animal kingdom challenges us with all, or nearly all, the mysteriesof life."

This attitude was shared by the Nobel committee, who rewarded him with the prize in medicine and physiology in 1973. The prize, which Frisch shared with two other animal behaviorists, Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen, was a departure for the Nobel Committee. Never before had there been such public recognition of the interactive study of animals and humans. In an article in Science magazine regarding the Nobel Prize, Frisch was praised for teaching the world that "human behavior [is not] something... outside nature" but something that is "subject to the principles that mold the biology, adaptability and the survival of other organisms."

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