Heinroth, Oskar August

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(b. Kastel-Kostheim, near Mainz, Germany, 1 March 1871;d. Berlin, Germany, 31 May 1945)

ornithology, ethology.

Oskar Heinroth came from a family of musicians and academics on his father’s side and of day laborers on his mother’s. His father, August Heinroth, earned a Ph.D. from the University of Jena and then for many years was tutor to the sons of a rich lumber merchant in St. Petersburg, who rewarded him so handsomely at the end of his service that when he returned to Germany, he was independently wealthy. August and his wife, Katharina Bodenmuller, had two children, the elder of whom was Oskar.

Heinroth graduated from the Holy Cross Gymnasium in Dresden in 1890 and went on to study medicine and zoology at Leipzig, Halle, and Kiel. He was licensed as a physician in 1895. The same year he received the doctorate from the Physiological Institute at Kiel. From 1896 to 1899 Heinroth studied zoology at Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. He worked as a volunteer at the Berlin Zoo until 1904, when he was named assistant to the director. In 1904 he married Magdalene Wiebe, who became his invaluable co-worker. In 1910 Heinroth was put in charge of establishing an aquarium at the zoo, and when it was completed in 1913, he became its first director. He served in this capacity for the rest of his career. His wife died in 1932, and Heinroth married Dr. Katharina Berger Rösch the following year; both marriages were childless. She collaborated with him in his ornithological studies, and after his death she wrote the major biographical study of his life and career.

Heinroth was twice the president of the German Ornithological Society and once of the German Society for the Study of Mammals. He was a corresponding or honorary member of numerous other societies, and his researches were honored with the Leibniz and Goethe medals.

From his earliest years, Heinroth was fascinated by the behavior of animals, especially birds. He is said to have learned to walk in the family hen house, where he loved to watch the hens and to imitate the noises they made. Though his family moved to Dresden so that he could attend the highly regarded Holy Cross Gymnasium, he took no interest in the classical education offered there, much preferring t ospend his time at the Dresden Zoological Garden.

Heinroth earned his doctorate at Kiel with a study on urine formation in fish. When he went to Berlin in 1896, he divided his time between his university and museum studies, and working at the zoo. At the Zoological Museum he studied avian systematics under Anton Reichenow. In 1898 he published an important analysis of the course of molting in birds. In 1900 and 1901 Heinroth participated as zoologist and physician on a scientific expedition to the South Seas. Though the high hopes for this expedition were destroyed when the party was attacked by natives in New Guinea and the expedition’s leader, Bruno Mencke, was killed, Heinroth managed to return to Berlin with a valuable collection of living animals and animal skins. He wrote up the ornithological results of the expedition and continued his observations on animal behavior at the zoo.

Heinroth was especially concerned with what he called the “finer details” of bird behavior. His approach to behavior studies was elaborated in a major paper he delivered at the Fifth International Ornithological Congress, held at Berlin in 1910. In this paper, “Beiträge zur Biologie: Nämentlich Ethologie und Psychologie der Anatiden,” he argued that behavior patterns are highly instructive for reconstructing the phylogenies of ducks and geese. He claimed that arteigene Triebhandlungen (species-specific instinctive actions) could be used like morphological features to determine the genetic affinities of species, genera, and subfamilies. He focused in particular on behavioral displays through which individuals of a species signal to other members of the same species. He also described, among other things, aspects of the phenomenon that his disciple, Konrad Lorenz, later named imprinting (Prägung). Heinroth found that greylag goslings do not instinctively recognize adult greylag geese as conspecifics. To the contrary, goslings hatched in an incubator and then exposed to a human being, even for a short period of time, will follow the human as if he or she were the birds’ parent. However, it was not until the 1930’s. when Lorenz insisted upon the theoretical significance of this phenomenon as a process distinct from normal association learning, that imprinting became an important focus of research for ethologists and other students of animal behavior.

With his wife, Heinroth undertook the systematic study of the instinctive behavior patterns of different bird species. The methodology they developed involved rearing baby birds at home, in isolation from other birds. The Heinroths saw these isolation or deprivation experiments as a means of distinguishing between those species-specific actions which were innate or genetically determined and those which were acquired through imitating or learning from conspecifics. Essentially, they defined as innate all those species-specific behavior patterns which emerged in a developing bird independently of any contact with other individuals of its own species. Emphatically empirical in their approach, they proceeded on the assumption that what was innate and what was learned in the different bird species had to be determined through experiments conducted on a species-by-species basis. Magdalena Heinroth gave an early report on this work at the International Ornithological Congress of 1910. Over the course of more than two decades, the Heinroths proceeded to rear nearly all the bird species of Central Europe in isolation. The results of this work were detailed in their four-volume classic, Die vögel Mitteleuropas in allen Lebens-und Entwicklungsstufen photographisch aufgenommen und in ihrem Seelenleben bei der Aufzucht vom Ei ab beobachtet (1924–1933).

Heinroth’s studies, in the opinion of the distinguished German ornithologist Erwin Stresemann. constituted the first great step toward closing the long-standing gap between avian systematics and avian biology, the two major branches of ornithology. At first Heinroth’s work attracted few disciples or emulators. At the beginning of the 1930’s, however, Heinroth was sought out by the young Austrian naturalistKonrad Lorenz, and over the next decade they developed a strong friendship, and exchanged observations and ideas. This interaction was of great importance for the subsequent history of ethology. Heinroth’s love of animals and concern with establishing the study of animal behavior on a firm inductive foundation were shared by Lorenz, though the younger man proved significantly less reluctant to generalize about animal behavior than Heinroth had been.

It was primarily Lorenz, first with Heinroth’s encouragement and then with the very able support and collaboration of the young Dutch naturalist Nikolaas Tinbergen and others, who between 1935 and 1960 played the leading role in establishing ethology, the comparative study of behavior, as a modern scientific discipline.


I. Orginal Works. For a complete bibiography of Heinroth’s works, encompassing 484 items, see Katharina Heinroth, Oskar Heinroth, Vater der Verhaltensforschung Stuttgart, 1971). 204–227.

II.Secondary Literature. The major biographical study of Heinroth is the book by Katharina Heinroth cited above. Other discussions of Heinroth’s life and career include Konrad Herter, “Zur Erinnerung an Oskar Heinroth (1871 bis 1945),” in Sitzungsberichte der Gesellschaft Naturforschender Freunde zu Berlin. 3 (1963), 117–122; Otto Koehler, “Oskar Heinroth Zum 70. Geburtstag,” in Die Naturwissenschaften, 29 (1941), 169– 171; Konrad Lorenz, Nachruf Oskar Heinroth, 1871– 1945,” in Der Zoologische Garten, 24 (1958), 264–274; Kurt Priemel, “Zum 70. Geburtstag von Oskar Heinroth,” ibid., 13 (1941), 133–140; Karl Max Schneider, “Dr. Oskar Heinroth, 1871–1945.” in Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde, 19 (1951[1954]), 57–65: and Erwin Stresemann, Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present. Hans J. Epstein and Cathleen Epstein, trans., G. William Cottrell, ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1975), 272–273, 345–347, 359, 363, 364.

Richard W. Burkckhardt, JR.

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