Noted Danish scientist eulogized at ASC

Life and times of pioneering Danish marine scientist Johannes Schmidt told in story at ASC and laid down in new book.
Published: 23 September 2016

​​​​​​​"One night in the summer of 1904, Johannes Schmidt was smoking his Turkish pipe in the downstairs cabin of the Thor off the coast of the Faroes. Suddenly, the smoke-filled room was disturbed by his younger assistant who tore up the door with a sensation in his hands."

So began the story narrated by Bo Poulsen, as he paced through the gathered ­crowds at the 2016 Annual Science Conference (ASC) welcome reception in Riga on Monday night. Paulsen, Associate Professor of Environmental History at Aalborg University's Faculty of Social Sciences, was recounting the time when the young Schmidt was first told about the breakthrough capture of a European eel larva far away from European shores. The birthplace of this enigmatic sea creature had puzzled natural historians since the time of Aristotle, and the find prompted Schmidt to dedicate the next quarter of a century striving to find out more.

Various trials and tribulations followed for Schmidt as he ventured out of the ICES area onto the edge of the continental shelf, the many eel larvae his team collected on the way suggesting they became smaller and younger the further westwards the cruises travelled. His explorations culminated in a criss-crossing of the North Atlantic in 1913. The expedition was led by 22 year-old student Paul Jespersen on his first research trip whilst Schmidt sat out in Denmark, unable to leave his day job studying hops and yeast in the Carlsberg laboratory. He joined his team during the trip following the running aground of the ship on a coral reef. The silver lining to this distastrous incident, however, was a huge collection of eel larvae salvaged from the wreck.

Two post-war trips followed for Schmidt before, in 1922, the Royal Society's journal published his grand theory hat the eel breeds in the Sargasso Sea some 6,000 Kilometers away from Copenhagen.

Wider work

Other chapters in Schmidt's legacy include the mapping of life history traits of 23 commercially important species such as cod, halibut, and herring from navigating the waters around Iceland and the Faroe Islands. This gave birth to greater understanding of spawning areas and that young fish lived in distinct nurseries. Schmidt found that the movement of fish was governed by availability of food and by ocean currents and temperature. This laid the foundation for the modern migration triangle, which emerged as a concept in the 1970s.

Global grant

Drawing on his relationship with Carlsberg, in 1927 Schmidt persuaded its foundation to part with a record grant of 600,000 Danish Kroner to support his global circumnavigation. The result was the 1928-30 Carlsberg Foundation's Oceanographic Expedition round the World. This trip, in addition to eel-related discoveries, revealed hypoxic and anoxic conditions in parts of the Pacific Ocean.

The ship, called Dana II, was the first to take an echo sounder all the way around the world. This led to the discovery of a submarine mountain ridge between East Africa and India, today known as the Carlsberg Ridge.

Human connections

These stories were fondly and animatedly told by Paulsen, who has just penned and had published a biography on Schmidt entitled 'Global Marine Science and Carlsberg - The Golden Connections of Johannes Schmidt (1877-1933)'. The Carlsberg Foundation plays an important role in all this, its history intertwined with the history of ICES. Schmidt was just 25 when ICES was inaugurated in 1902, and many of the questions and issues – such as how do fish migrate and where can they be harvested – formed the backdrop to the scientific landscape of the time in which Schmidt's quests took flight.

Schmidt's impact, however, stretches beyond research itself. According to Paulsen, his dealings with the media – how he used it and how it presented him – also came to define him.

"For his time he was a bit of a pioneer in his use of mass media. He brought a film camera crew on his circumnavigation and shot some footage and had a 20 minute silent film edited. He was portrayed in a men's magazine at the time and his wife was interviewed by a women's magazine, so he was a semi-celebrity."

"At the academic programme for a British​ academy of science conference in 1922, he gave a lecture with a film. I think he was the only one who did that – in 1922!"​

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​Bo ​Poulsen reading his story of Johannes Schmidt during the 2016 ASC in Riga​

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Noted Danish scientist eulogized at ASC

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