Stresemann, Erwin

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(b. Dresden, Germany, 22 November 1889; d. Berlin, Federal Republic of Germany, 20 November 1972)

ornithology, systematics.

The son of Richard Stresemann, a well-to-do pharmacist, and of Marie Dunkelbeck, Stresemann had an excellent education in a culturally stimulating atmosphere. From his earliest youth he kept living animals in his parents’ house and built up a collection of bird skins. In 1908 he began the study of medicine at the University of Jena, where he became acquainted with Ernst Haeckel. In 1909 he transferred to the University of Munich, where he prepared for an expedition to the Moluccas with the geologist K. Deninger. Since the best bird collections from that area were at the Rothschild Museum, Strese–mann traveled to Tring, England, where he came under the tutelage of Ernst Hartert, then the world’s leading ornithologist. They remained close friends and are buried in the same grave in a Berlin cemetery. The Moluccan expedition (second Freiburg expedition), in the field from September 1910 to April 1912, was immensely successful. Stresemann studied at Freiburg from 1912 to 1914, and his reports on the bird collections made on Ceram and Buru, published while he was there (1913, 1914), established his reputation as an ornithologist.

Stresemann married Elisabeth Deninger on 20 June 1916; they had a daughter and two sons. They were divorced in July 1939, and on 20 September 1941 Stresemann married Vesta Grote.

Stresemann’s interests were extraordinarily broad, ranging from philosophy to literature and history. The anthropological and linguistic materials he had collected in the Moluccas were later published in two books (1918, 1927) that were highly praised by specialists.

World War I interrupted his studies, but in 1918 Stresemann returned to Munich and in March 1920 obtained the D.Phil. (summa cum laude) under Richard von Hertwig. The degree was only a formality, since by then he had published more than forty papers, including some very important ones. At that time he worked at the Munich Zoological Museum in association with C. E. Hellmayr. There he completed the Avifauna Macedonian (1920), a work in which he introduced a number of methodological innovations. He also completed the first installment of the Aves volume of the Handbuch der Zoologie. When he sent this in 1920 to Willy Georg Kukenthal, the editor of the Handbuch, who had just been appointed director of the Zoological Museum in Berlin, Kükenthal was so impressed by its outstanding quality that he offered Stresemann the vacant position of curator of ornithology at that museum. He accepted and held this position, the foremost in Germany, from April 1921 until 1961 Since several older, and at that time seemingly far better qualified, zoologists had applied for the vacancy, Stresemann at first encountered a good deal of envy, if not enmity. The brilliant manner in which he filled the position of the “Berlin ornithologist,” as successor to Jean Louis Cabanes and Anton Reichenow, quickly converted resentment into admiration.

The tempo of Stresemann’s activity is documented by the number of papers he published annually in the years 1922 to 1926: twenty-seven, twenty-seven, fifty-nine, twenty-nine, and twenty-nine. They included taxonomic notes and the description of new subspecies from Indonesia, the New Guinea region, Eurasia, and North and South America; the history of ornithological collections; questions of nomenclature; reports on the results of expeditions; the history of aviculture and domestic races of birds; “mutation studies” (the unmasking of color varieties described as separate species); hybrids; sibling species; polytypic species; range expansions; revisions of difficult genera (Accipiter, Collocalia, Phylloscopus, Zosterops, Spizaetus, Pitohui, Lamprocolius, Meliphaga, Cyorms); and almost every other aspect of ornithology.

Stresemann’s capacity for work is best represented by mentioning his many activities: secretary general of the German Ornithological Society (the oldest in the world), a position he held from 1922 to 1949 (also president 1949-1967 and honorary president 1967–1972); editor of two ornithological periodicals, Journal für Ornithologie and Ornithologische Monatsberichie; author of the Aves volume of the Handbuch der Zoologie; reorganizer of the bird collections and the ornithological library of the Berlin Museum; and supervisor of the work of twenty–one doctoral candidates between 1924 and 1939. Even those closely associated with him during this period could not understand how he could master so many tasks simultaneously, and so well, without an assistant and with very insufficient secretarial help. The answer was, in part, his enormous enthusiasm, an unbelievable memory, a great capacity for concentration, and, of course, superior intelligence.

The Aves volume (1927–1934) presented a sovereign account of everything known about birds, from morphology, physiology, and embryology to all aspects of distribution, life history, behavior, and ecology. It is the only case in the history of ornithology of a single author’s succeeding in presenting total knowledge of birds in a superbly competent manner. All subsequent handbooks of birds are multiauthor productions. It was particularly through this work, but also through many of his other activities, that Stresemann succeeded in integrating ornithology into biology. There had been a tendency up to that time to consider it a hobby or a very peripheral specialty.

As early as 1919 Stresemann had published a species definition identical almost to the last word with Theodosius Dobzhansky’s often quoted definition of 1936. Except for Hartert, no one applied the polytypic species concept as consistently as Stresemann. As a result, many hundreds, if not thousands, of typologically defined species were reduced to subspecies. In this period he sometimes carried the principle “geographical representative = subspecies” too far. Not a few of these “subspecies” have recently been raised to the rank of allospecies.

None of his larger works was strictly descriptive. Stresemann always followed a subject to its theoretical consequences. A report on the birds collected by G. Heinrich on Celebes culminated in a superb treatment of principles of zoogeography (including dispersal and competition).

From the beginning Stresemann had a great interest in the history of ornithology. He wrote extensively on the lives of famous and some undeservedly forgotten authors and published some of their correspondence. Through him Lazarus Roting, Johann Leonhard Frisch, Ferdinand Adam von Pernau, Friedrich Sellow, Carl Heinrich Merck. Johann Heinrich Zorn. Christian Ludwig Brehm, Johann Friedrich Naumann, Heinrich Boie, Conrad Jacobus Temminck, Martin Heinrich Lichtenstein. Johann Carl Iliiger, Eduard Eversmann, Petr Simon Pallas, and several others were brought closer to our understanding. His Die Entwicklung der Ornithologie von Aristoteles his zur Gegenivart (1951) is an extraordinary achievement. Not only does it contain vivid portraits of the men who had left their mark on ornithology, but it also sheds a great deal of light on the interactions between ornithology and the rest of biological science, as well as on the role of the study of birds in the total cultural life of each period.

In spite of the difficulties of working in divided Berlin and of visiting other museums, and the impossibility of receiving new material, Stresemann remained active after 1945. In addition to continuing his historical studies, he concentrated on the sequence and seasonal occurrence of the molt in the orders, families, and species of birds. In this first truly thorough analysis of the phenomenon (largely in collaboration with his second wife, Vesta) he discovered an almost bewildering diversity of molt patterns, which allowed regrettably few generalizations (such as relation between molt and migration).

Stresemann had a charismatic personality and was able to charm (and often deeply influence) anyone he encountered. His phenomenal memory, his ability to cut through complex obscurities to reach clear formulations, the elegance of his written work, and his clear vision of desirable goals had an extraordinary impact on his associates and on ornithology as a whole. In 1934 Stresemann served as president of the Eighth International Ornithological Congress (Oxford), and in the ensuing years he received numerous other honors. Active almost to the end of his life, he succumbed to a heart attack two days before his eighty-third birthday.


I. Original Works. Among Stresemann’s thirteen books or major monographs are Die Paulohisprache. Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis der amboinischen Sprachengruppe (The Hague, 1918); Avifauna Mucedonica (Munich, 1920); Die Lauterscheinung der ambotnischen Sprachen (Berlin, 1927); Aves, VII, pt. 2, of Willy Georg Kükenthal, ed.. Handbuch der Zoologie (Berlin, 1934); and Die Entwicklung der Ornithologie von Aristoteles bis zum Gegenwart (Berlin, 1951), trans. by Hans J. Epstein and Cathleen Epstein as Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present (Cambridge. Mass., 1975). He also published some 600 journal articles.

II. Secondary Liturature. L. Gebhardt, “Die Ornithologen Mitteleuropas,” in Journal für Ornithohgie, 115 (spec, iss.) (1974), 83–86, including a bibliography of some twenty obituaries; Ernst Mayr and William B. Provine, eds,. The Evolutionary Synthesis (Cambridge. Mass., 1980), 414–416; R. Nöhring. “Erwin Stresemann,” in Journal für Ornitholgie, 114 (1973), 455–500, with full bibliography by I. Jahn, titles of twenty-eight dissertations done under his guidance, titles of the periodicals he edited, and titles of four festschriften published in his honor in 1949 and 1959 : and K. E. Westerskov, “Erwin Stresemann and His Contribution to Australasian Ornithology,” in Notornis, 23 (1976), 138–167.

Ernst Mayr