Erwin Stresemann

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Erwin Stresemann (22 November 1889, Dresden – 20 November 1972, East Berlin) was a German naturalist and ornithologist. Stresemann was an ornithologist of extensive breadth who compiled one of the first and most comprehensive accounts of avian biology of its time as part of the Handbuch der Zoologie (Handbook of Zoology). In the process of his studies on birds, he also produced one of the most extensive historical accounts on the development of the science of ornithology. He influenced numerous ornithologists around him and oversaw the development of ornithology in Germany as editor of the Journal für Ornithologie.

Early life[edit]

Stresemann was born in Dresden to Richard, an apothecary and Marie. The family was affluent, providing a stimulating environment and at a comparatively young age he was able to travel to Heligoland, Bornholm and Moscow. After high school he went to study zoology the Jena in 1908 and then transferred to Munich to study under Richard von Hertwig and still later at Freiburg. He took a break from 1910 to 1912 to join as an ornithologist on the "Second Freiburg Expedition" to the Moluccas (1910–12). He returned to study the bird collections at the Rothschild Museum in Tring where Ernst Hartert worked. Stresemann also studied Indonesian languages including the now near-extinct Paulohi language and wrote a monograph on the topic and a paper on language relations.[1][2] Stresemann's studies were interrupted by the First World War and he was conscripted, serving initially in an artillery unit on the Western Front. From an anchored balloon used to study the accuracy of artillery, he made studies on the flight of swifts. He was transferred to Italy and was wounded in November 1917. He returned to Munich and resumed his studies and graduated with majors in zoology and minors in botany and anthropology. He graduated summa cum laude in March 1920.[3]


One of Stresemann's early achievements was his authorship of the parts on Aves in the Handbuch der Zoologie. In 1914, the editor Willy Kükenthal(1861-1922) offered the task to him after others like Anton Reichenow (1847-1941), Valentin Haecker (1864-1927) and Oskar Heinroth (1871-1945) refused to take it up as they were preoccupied. His position as a 24 year old zoology student in comparison to the others is remarkable and Jurgen Haffer notes that this work acted as a springboard for his future career. Stresemann also had eminent peers and mentors in Ernst Hartert, Carl Zimmer, Otto Kleinschmidt and Carl Eduard Hellmayr. The Aves work continued to be updated until 1934 and Stresemann produced one of the most comprehensive treatises on birds. It covered anatomy, morphology, behaviour, physiology, and evolution in ways that no other work had done before. It was not until the 1960's that anything comparable was produced in the English language in the multi-author work edited by A.J. Marshall (1960-1961) and later in the multi volume series on Avian Biology edited by Farner and King.[3]


In 1920 he succeeded Anton Reichenow as curator of ornithology at the Zoological Museum in Berlin, a position he stayed in until his retirement in 1961. During his career, he worked continuously on several areas of ornithology and maintained a broad interest that allowed him to produce a major treatise on the history and development of the field of ornithology. He was made professor in 1930 and from 1946 to 1961 he was tenured professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Along with his wife Vesta, he wrote on the patterns of moults in birds. In this 1966 work dedicated to Oskar Heinroth, he examined moulting patterns and sought to see if there were phylogenetic patterns in them and concluded that they did not show any clear relationship. He found several other biological traits that seemed to influence moult, at least of the flight feathers.[4] He was decorated with GDR Patriotic Order of Merit.[5] In the 1960s and 70s he and his wife were provided special permissions to pass through the Berlin wall at any time to visit the Zoological Museum.[6]


Stresemann was one of the outstanding ornithologists of the 20th century but is often not recognized outside Germany because most of his works were written in German and ignored due to the wartime rivalries. At the age of 40, Stresemann was elected President of the 8th International Congress. He encouraged a number of young German scientists, including his most famous student Ernst Mayr and Bernhard Rensch.[7] Mayr however noted that despite being progressive, Stresemann did not fully grasp or understand the synthesis of evolution and genetics.[8]

Stresemann was the long-standing editor of the Journal für Ornithologie (1922 onward). As editor, he demonstrated a preference for articles dealing with the anatomy, physiology and the behaviour of birds.[9] His major publication was the volume Aves (1927–1934) in the Handbuch der Zoologie (Handbook of Zoology).[7][10] He also wrote Entwicklung der Ornithologie von Aristoteles bis zur Gegenwart (1951),[11] a review of the development of ornithology from Aristotle to modern times, translated into English in 1975 as "Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present".[12]

Stresemann married Elisabeth Deninger in 1916. She was the daughter of chemist Albert Deninger, known for his work on flouride toothpastes. They were divorced in 1939. He married again in 1941 to Vesta Grote who survived him.

Stresemann is commemorated in the scientific name of a species of gecko, Cyrtodactylus stresemanni.[13]


  1. ^ {Stresemann, E. (1927) Die Lauterscheinungen in den ambonischen Sprachen. Zeitschrift fur Eingeborenen-Sprachen, Supplement 10. Berlin, Reimer.
  2. ^ Stresemann, Erwin (1918). Die Paulohi Sprache. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. 
  3. ^ a b Haffer, Juergen (1994-06-01). "The genesis of Erwin Stresemann's Aves (1927–1934) in the Handbuch der Zoologie, and his contribution to the evolutionary synthesis". Archives of Natural History. 21 (2): 201–216. doi:10.3366/anh.1994.21.2.201. ISSN 0260-9541. 
  4. ^ Stresemann, Erwin; Stresemann, Vesta (1966). "Die Mauser der Vogel". J. Ornithol. 107: 1–44. 
  5. ^ Biographical information from the manual "Who was who in the GDR?" 5 Issue. Volume 2 Ch links, Berlin 2010, ISBN 978-3-86153-561-4.
  6. ^ "Erwin Stresemann". Ibis. 115 (2): 282–284. 1973-04-01. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.1973.tb02647.x. ISSN 1474-919X. 
  7. ^ a b Haffer, Jürgen (2007). Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy: The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr. Springer. 
  8. ^ Junker, Thomas (2003). "Ornithology and the genesis of the Synthetic Theory of Evolution" (PDF). Avian Science. 3 (2 & 3): 65–73. 
  9. ^ Ibis Volume 115, Issue 2, Article first published online: 3 APR 2008
  10. ^ Glaubrecht, Matthias (2012-03-01). "In Memoriam: Jürgen Haffer, 1932–2010, and his contributions to zoology and the history of science". Zoosystematics and Evolution. 88 (1): 5–12. doi:10.1002/zoos.201200001. ISSN 1860-0743. (PDF link). 
  11. ^ Friedmann, Herbert (April 1952). "Reviewed work: History of Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present Time (Entwicklung der Ornithologie von Aristoteles bis zur Gegenwart) by Erwin Stresemann". Bird-Banding. 23 (2): 91–93. JSTOR 4510346. 
  12. ^ Stresemann, Erwin (1975). Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present. Harvard University Press. 
  13. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 257. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. 
  14. ^ IPNI.  Stresem. 

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