Duke University Alumni Magazine

Curiosity And The Camel

Beauty of the beast: Schmidt-Nielsen in bronze contemplates his subject
Photo: Jim Wallace
inding your way through the pied- mont pathways of West Campus, you may come face-to-face with a most improbable creature -- a life-size, bronze camel standing eight feet high from hoof to hump. This superbly cast noble dromedary is so strikingly real, you can almost smell its breath.

     You would not be alone in contemplating the fascinating animal: Right alongside would be one of our nation's most prominent animal physiologists, Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, Schmidt- Nielsen, also cast in bronze, stands observing and questioning the camel just as astutely as the camel observes him.

Scuptor Kingdon and his models.

     The bronze duo, The Scientist and Nature, was commissioned by Stephen A. Wainwright, James B, Duke Professor of Zoology emeritus, and his wife, Ruth, (For years, Wainwright co- ordinated a series of seminars around the theme "Structures" for Duke's freshman Focus program,) It is both a tribute to a remarkable scientist and a statement about: science in general, "The scientific quest is a voyage of self-exploration," says Wainwright. "By asking questions about the animals around us, we learn more about who we are."

     The idea for The Scientist and Nature sculp- ture was conceived in the early Seventies during a conversation between Wainwright and Frank Smullin, then the sculpture instructor in the Duke art department. Both had tremendous respect for colleague Schmidt-Nielsen, whose research on the physiological mechanisms of desert animals was earning him honors and awards from all over the world; both also noted that there was surprisingly little outdoor artwork to view on a campus celebrated for its aesthetic appeal.

     Wainwright decided to commission Smullin to create a sculpture to commemorate Schmidt- Nielsen's work. A camel seemed a logical symbol, since Schmidt-Nielsen had devoted more than twenty years to studying camels and had written numerous scientific publications on how camels can withstand the harsh desert environment. He had even published a seminal textbook on physiological mechanisms of desert animals.

     Unfortunately, Frank Smullin died unexpectedly in 1978. All ideas for the sculpture were shelved for several years.

     In the late Eighties, after Schmidt-Nielsen's retirement, Wainwright became acquainted with artist/naturalist Johnathon Kingdon. Kingdon, who had grown up in Kenya and Tanzania, had compiled a seven-volume treatise on East African mammals, brimming with his own expertly drawn illustrations. Wainwright mentioned his desire to commission a life-sized bronze camel; Kingdon jumped at the idea. He suggested, though, that a man be added to the concept. The man and the animal would be on equal footing; the two figures would be in the midst of a conversation and the man would be saying, "Tell me about yourself, Camel, that I may know myself." Wainwnght enthusiastically embraced the idea and Kingston started construction of a small-scale model.

     The sculpture was constructed in Chalford, England, at Pangolin Editions -- a foundry managed by Kingdon's son and recognized as one of the most advanced metal foundries in Europe. With Schmidt-Nielsen's visit to Chalford, Kingston took full advantage of an op- portunity not always afforded artists in creative commemorative works: He spent time sketching, modeling, and conversing with his living subject to guide the spirit of the sculpture.

     In the winter of 1994, the bronze camel was completed and briefly displayed at the London Zoo. Shortly thereafter, the 4,000-pound pair -- camel and scientist -- was carefully crated and shipped across the Atlantic. After reaching Norfolk, Virginia, and clearing customs in late May 1994, the crate was loaded onto a flat-bed truck and driven to Durham. During the ride, the truck driver attempted to drive under a low bridge, He had to stop and back up when he heard his precious cargo scraping against the bridge's undercarriage. Wainwright and his crew gingerly opened the badly gashed crate upon its arrival to survey the damage. Luckily, only the camel's head had incurred some minor scratches.

     In April 1995, the zoology department organized an entire week around a preview of the sculpture. Kingdon flew in from England to talk about his art and his interest in science, and also displayed some of his animal sketches, Another year passed before the sculpture was finally situated on Science Drive between the Biological Sciences Building and the Gross Chemistry Building. By July 1996, the camel and Schmidt-Nielsen, The Scientist and Nature, had at long last completed their journey,

     Born in Trondheim, Norway, in 1915, Schmidt-Nielsen became a U.S. citizen in 1952. Educated in Oslo and Copenhagen, he spent two postdoctoral years at Swarthmore College, a year at Stanford University, and three at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine before coming to Duke in 1952. He has published 270 scientific papers, written five books that have been translated into sixteen languages, and received numerous awards, including the International Prize for Biology, the Japanese equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the biological sciences.

     Speaking about his work, he says, "I have always been curious, More than anything else, I have wondered how animals meet the challenges of their environment, how they adapt to life in the sea and on dry land. At first glance, these environments may seem extremely different. However, from a physiological viewpoint, water in the sea is not freely available, and on land -- especially in the desert -- lack of water is an important challenge to survival.

     "At times, I wonder what made me a physiologist and not an engineer or carpenter or physician. I could probably have done reasonably well in any of those fields -- about carpentry, I feel certain. I was always curious about animals, and because my father permitted me to choose my own ways, I have enjoyed the excitement of a life spent discovering how animals work."

     Schmidt-Nielsen leans back in his chair, cocks his head, and smiles, "I have just never stopped asking questions," he says softly.

     The Scientist and Nature embodies that insatiable curiosity, As Wainwright describes it, "Anyone approaching the sculpture who knows Knut will say, 'I know that guy!' Anyone who doesn't know Knut will know that the man is comfortable standing so close to such a dignified animal many times his own size and that he is curiously wanting to know more about the camel, A stranger will simply have to come close enough to find out why these two beings are so interested in each other."

-- Tierney Thys

Thys is a graduate student in the zoology department.

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