The Wall of the Dead
January 24, 2011 9:03 PM   Subscribe

We go to great lengths commemorating soldiers who have died fighting wars for their countries. Why not do the same for the naturalists who still sometimes give up everything in the effort to understand life?

Richard Conniff, a science journalist and blogger, has begun an online memorial to the many naturalists who have been killed while doing fieldwork.


Their stories include that of Prince Eugenio Rispoli (killed in 1893 by a stampeding elephant), Annelisa Kilbourn (killed in a plane crash in Gabon in 2002 while investigating the link between gorilla populations and Ebola), and many, many more.
posted by ChuraChura (44 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because in democratic countries, soldiers volunteer to follow orders sent down by a government chosen by the people, even if those orders lead to injury or death.

Not to devalue the work of naturalists - those entrepreneurial souls - or to derail the thread. But this rhetorical point ("why do we honour soldiers so!") comes up quite a bit, and I think that there are, in fact, some very good reasons to honour the uniform services the way we do - ways that are not applicable to every profession under the sun, no matter how noble.
posted by bicyclefish at 10:01 PM on January 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


Nobodies has more or less value.
posted by I love you more when I eat paint chips at 10:07 PM on January 24, 2011


death*
posted by I love you more when I eat paint chips at 10:09 PM on January 24, 2011


It's a nice idea, but I hesitate at the idea that a workplace death is a "sacrifice" in the goal of a greater cause. Safety first and zero tolerance for workplace injuries.

What makes the fieldwork of natural scientists more "sacrificial" than the work of coalminers, construction workers, pre-press technicians, forklift drivers, stevedores, professional drivers, electricians, marine fishers, sex workers, foresters, warehouse hands, security guards, spraypainters, line process factory workers, abbatoir hands, road maintenance crew, prison warders, and so on?

Also, you can't get conscripted into being a botanist.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:11 PM on January 24, 2011 [8 favorites]


Because in democratic countries, soldiers volunteer to follow orders sent down by a government chosen by the people, even if those orders lead to injury or death

Or as Benedict Anderson put it in Imagined Communities:

The cultural significance of such [National, war] monuments becomes clearer if one tries to imagine, say, a Tomb of the Unknown Marxist or a Cenotaph for fallen Liberals. Is such a sense of absurdity avoidable? The reason is that neither Marxism nor Liberalism are concerned with death or immortality...
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:16 PM on January 24, 2011


I've got no problem with soldiers being honored but it doesn't seem to me like a special profession that's the only one where sacrificing your life is worthy of honor with a monument. (It also does not seem to me much less "entrepreneurial" than other pursuits - some of the soldiers I've known have been pretty entrepreneurial.)

What about a journalist dying in pursuit of the truth, someone like Anna Politkovskaya? It doesn't seem quite appropriate to me to call that simply a "workplace death" and put it on the same level as a warehouse worker who is fatally injured by a forklift or something.

I think that a scientist dying in pursuit of the truth can be as noble and as worthy of commemoration as a journalist dying and both of those cases can easily be as significant as a soldier dying, and none of those are reducible to the same thing as someone who took their risks in exchange for making a paycheck.
posted by XMLicious at 10:34 PM on January 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


Well, I guess I could put a magnetic yellow "ribbon" on my SUV. "Support Our Naturalists." My SUV with the seats lined with silverback gorilla fur.
posted by orthogonality at 10:43 PM on January 24, 2011


Maurice and Katia Krafft, volcanologists.
David A. Johnston, volcanologist.
Gary Rosenquist, amateur photographer on Mt. Saint Helens in Bear Meadow.

Prince Ruspoli was a big game hunter,
trying to kill the elephant that killed him.
I'm on the elephant's side on that one.

Workplace safety and regulation and conscripted versus professional KIA
need their own threads, somewhere else. Journalists, too. And patriots,
mothers, assassinated politicians and do-gooders, murdered innocents,
martyred saints, bodhisattvas, and so on.

Some other thread.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:43 PM on January 24, 2011


I got a little bit angry when I saw that Charles Darwin's grave in Westminster Abbey is just a slab on the floor bearing his name and dates, surrounded by massive opulent sculptures celebrating the lives of rich church benefactors who have been otherwise forgotten. (Newton being the exception... he has a nice monument)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:52 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


A fair number of naturalists end up with species named for them. Or museums, or museum wings.

As for only soldiers being honored so, it is true that many many towns have monuments to the dead soldiers who came from there, but few towns will have more than one native naturalist or two. In any case, there are such specific things as the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, so a Naturalists Hall of Fame doesn't seem like a stretch except in who might come to see it.

qxntpqbbbqxl, as his friends arranged for the burial there, and his family erected a bronze memorial with the simple inscription DARWIN, I would say that he was commemorated to the extent desired by his intimates.
posted by dhartung at 11:09 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Politkovskaya was assassinated. Comparing that to workplace accidents, or even deaths from unavoidably risky occupations seems...inapt, to say the least.
posted by kagredon at 11:13 PM on January 24, 2011


He doesn't need a blurb because he's CHARLES FUCKING DARWIN, not Lord Fauntleroy's aunt.

The graves of Darwin and Newton speak volumes about the respective characters of each.
posted by benzenedream at 11:13 PM on January 24, 2011


I got a little bit angry when I saw that Charles Darwin's grave in Westminster Abbey is just a slab on the floor bearing his name and dates, surrounded by massive opulent sculptures celebrating the lives of rich church benefactors who have been otherwise forgotten. (Newton being the exception... he has a nice monument)

Why would this make you angry? Charles is beyond caring, and no doubt would find the idea of worshipping his bones somewhat redundant, to say the least.

Also, there's lots of statues and libraries and shit named after him.
posted by smoke at 11:25 PM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Speaking of which, one of my brothers has three middle names, one which is Darwin after the good scientist. (The other two being Burton and Wallace after two other individuals of academic and societal interest.)
posted by Lord Chancellor at 11:42 PM on January 24, 2011


Politkovskaya was assassinated. Comparing that to workplace accidents, or even deaths from unavoidably risky occupations seems...inapt, to say the least.

True, but it's not simply the fact that she was assassinated - based on her work we can see that lots of people probably get assassinated by the Russian government, they aren't even all "good guys" and so simply having been assassinated by the Russian government isn't what makes Politkovskaya and her legacy great. It's that she saw the risk and stepped into the line of fire willingly and for the sake of a cause larger than herself. When a soldier dies through an accident or even friendly fire instead of at the hand of the enemy, we still honor them.

And of course it's significant to me that I think her cause was worthy; I wouldn't be moved by a paparazzi who broke his neck falling out of a tree while trying to get a shot in a starlet's window.

It's just that, in the same way that I'm willing to forgo looking too much at the sociopolitical context of the conflict in which a soldier died, or at their personal situation or motivations, and by default assume that they were bravely and intentionally facing risk for the greater good of their countrymen, I'd be willing to by default assume that a scientist or journalist who died in the course of their work had knowingly and willingly taken on the risk because they thought that the benefit to humanity of the knowledge they were pursuing was more important than concern for themselves.
posted by XMLicious at 11:59 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


The tomb of the unknown BASE Jumper.
posted by fullerine at 12:18 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


shall we honour those physicists who do vital weapons research for their country's nuclear deterrent?
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 12:21 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


shall we honour those physicists who do vital weapons research for their country's nuclear deterrent?

Someone like Sakharov, you mean? I'd say yeah - if we would honor a soldier doing the same thing, sure, why not?
posted by XMLicious at 12:34 AM on January 25, 2011


So I guess walmart taking out an insurance policy that pays only the company if the employee dies is "investing in heroes".
posted by hal_c_on at 12:50 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have tended to conisder that memorials are for the living rather than the dead, that is, to assure soldiers that they will be honoured by their societies should they give their lives. A society in turn offers this becasue it wishes to see people continue to sign up to be soldiers.
posted by biffa at 2:13 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


There was also a follow-up to a post he made about this in the NYT where he responded to a reader comment that these guys didn't so much discover new species, but just catalog ones that the local folks often already knew about, often with the uncredited help of locals in finding and obtaining samples.
posted by snofoam at 2:38 AM on January 25, 2011


XMLicious: "What about a journalist dying in pursuit of the truth, someone like Anna Politkovskaya?"

Well, I don't know. Perhaps they could have a poignant memorial somewhere as well.
posted by brokkr at 2:39 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


First off, honor is of little use to the dead. It is always better not to die in these cases, whether for a cause or otherwise.

There is little reason to necessarily prioritize soldiers' sacrifices over others, but it is true that soldiers are disproportionately likely to meet their ends in their work. It is probably worth it to accord them a little priority because of that, both due to risk of death and number of soldiers put at risk. But yes, I would be happier if people who died in the service of all of us, whether because to defend a nation or to advance the purposes of science or to protect us from violent criminals or to to explore dangerous terrain (including space), or what have you.
posted by JHarris at 3:02 AM on January 25, 2011


    How unfair, that inventors of old-fashioned technology are all famous while no one even thinks about the gastronomical inventors, or about raising a monument to the Unknown Chef as we do for the Unknown Soldier. And yet so many anonymous heroes fell in terrible agony after they made their brave experiments, with mushrooms, for example, where the only way of distinguishing poisonous from nonpoisonous is to eat and wait for results... We could have managed without America, sooner or later America would have discovered itself, but not the pickle, and then there would have been nothing to sit on our plate beside a roast beef sandwich. No, gastronomy's nameless heroes were more heroic than those who found a soldier's death! A soldier had to charge the enemy trench or face a court-martial, but nobody ever forced a person to brave the danger of an unknown berry.
- Peace on Earth, Stanislaw Lem
posted by uandt at 3:40 AM on January 25, 2011 [7 favorites]


I got a little bit angry when I saw that Charles Darwin's grave in Westminster Abbey is just a slab on the floor bearing his name and dates, surrounded by massive opulent sculptures celebrating the lives of rich church benefactors who have been otherwise forgotten.

That's not nearly as funny as the Natural History Museum having its Darwin sculpture in its cafeteria while one of Darwin's chief opponents, Richard Owen, had pride of place on the stair landing (mind you he was the driving force behind the building's construction).

I believe the statues were swapped this year though.
posted by srboisvert at 4:07 AM on January 25, 2011


What I found most depressing about Westminster Abbey when I visited it was that Churchill's and Lloyd George's memorials are on either corner of The Unknown Soldier and both, the men who put him there, had more wreaths. A comment on British war memory, I thought.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:33 AM on January 25, 2011


Am I the only person who expected this to be about people not wearing clothes? My guffaw faded as I read on when I saw it was a real concern.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 5:14 AM on January 25, 2011


Sport our tropes!
posted by sneebler at 5:27 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Soldiers act on behalf of their country, naturalists act on behalf of all humanity. Naturalists deserve more honours.

Volunteer soldiers empower politicians to wage war. If we abolished standing armies we'd need better reasons to massacre millions.
posted by dickasso at 5:50 AM on January 25, 2011


One of the most fitting deaths "in the field" was that of the notorious American eugenicist & biologist Charles Davenport, born in 1866. He was killed by a rotting whale.

Davenport's career (trying to justify racism with science) had long gone up the spout, so he was passing his retirement, in part, as the curator of a Long Island whaling museum. Sticking bones together and tidying shelves, basically. He was trying to boil the stinking flesh off the skull of a locally beached dead whale in an outdoor shed one freezing February in 1944, caught pneumonia - and expired.

Davenport attended Whaling Museum staff meetings right up to a few days before his death & the stench of decaying whale meat in his hair and clothes was so puke making - no one could stand to sit near him. I've always thought that detail was fitting too.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 6:17 AM on January 25, 2011


While monuments to the fallen in war are nice and all, something I saw at the Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa this past fall resonated with me more. We were standing in the crowd during the ceremony, and there was a young serviceman right in front of us. Air force, I believe. Anyway, as the ceremony wound down and the crowd started to break up, a man approached the young serviceman, shook his hand, and said, "thank you". That moved me more than all the pomp and circumstance of the day.

If you want to honour the work done by people who have made sacrifices in the name of furthering truth and bettering humanity's lot, take a moment to thank those who continue to do the work.
posted by LN at 6:46 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


JHarris: First off, honor is of little use to the dead.

Exactly. Memorials are for the living, to mark the death of someone or a group as a noble way to have died, or that their death was not in vain. But soldiers have one purpose: to make peace through threat or war. The soldier as humanitarian is a bonus, using skilled people to help those in need when there is no war going on. Death is a reality for soldiers, not for botanists.

But the naturalist has a goal of greater understanding. Their monuments are often in the realms of science, species named after them, things of that sort. This is the same for many professions where someone dies in the line of work - they are recognized in their field first and foremost. The dangerous side of the profession is generally* not lauded, because that is not the core of the profession.

* Ice Road Truckers and Alaskan Fisherman have their TV shows, but that monument is for the living participants, and it makes great TV.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:51 AM on January 25, 2011


People who die doing something they believe in, without society's prodding, don't automatically deserve special recognition. A naturalist or journalist dying at work is more like a religious martyr than a soldier. Still worthy of recognition, but mostly by people who share those ideals.

People who die doing something that The People have asked them to do need some sort of official memorializing by The People. It's how we say "oops, we screwed up, sorry" or "thanks for taking one for the team." More pragmatically, it's also a requirement if you want more people to sacrifice their lives in the future.
posted by pjaust at 7:03 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


naturalists who still sometimes give up everything in the effort to understand life?

and here I thought they just liked to run around naked.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 7:21 AM on January 25, 2011


I would prefer to see that all who contribute to society's betterment receive accolades, both before and after death. Society gets the behavior it rewards. A society which lays honors lopsidedly on on one segment will be unbalanced and unhealthy.

Compare the relative amounts spent by the Department of State, the Department of Defense and the Department of Science, and then consider the predominant response of our society to any challenge.
posted by TheProudAardvark at 7:31 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


If I were a dead naturalist I should want my memorial to be more money and effort devoted to the things I spent my time on when alive. I don't think soldiers feel the same.
posted by Segundus at 8:04 AM on January 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


I read this whole site yesterday and loved it. Some of the stories are more funny (dying of mortification! naming a species* after the guy who had it in his bag when he was trampled by an elephant!) than tragic but then there's the really sad stories. I was especially hit by the 23 year old student that was murdered in Costa Rica. Partly because she was born the same year as me and I was in Mexico the same year, and partly because several people go to Costa Rica every year for research. There's actually another death, by bee stings, that happened at the very field station that my friends/colleagues go to.

*I have to point out that very few things are today named after researchers. "A fair number of naturalists end up with species named for them. Or museums, or museum wings" might have been true back in the day but not any more. See Weller, Worth Hamilton.

Death is something that isn't often talked about in field research but it's certainly there. When I took a wilderness first aid course we talked about how long we should do CPR (given we were the only people on the island, given different flight times for emergency personnel, given different reasons for heart stoppage) and what to do with a dead body.

I'm glad that someone is collecting these stories because I guess I like that someone is memorializing those who died doing something they love and believe in. I don't think the dead care about whether they're memorialized or not but maybe they'd be glad to know that their work isn't forgotten.
posted by hydrobatidae at 8:24 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Lockwood, Tom E. (1941-1975), botanist at the University of Illinois-Urbana, monographer of the genus Brugmansia, died, age 34, in an auto accident in Mexico during a field trip with students.

My advisor went to grad school with Tommy, and recently told me the story: He was riding shotgun in a mini bus with his students and a local driver. The bus went off the road, and Tommy was the only fatality. Apparently, when the police showed up to the scene to find a wrecked bus, a group of American students, and their dead professor, they didn't quite know what to do. So they put them all in jail. Including the body. For three days.

At least he died with his boots on, as they say.
posted by vortex genie 2 at 9:52 AM on January 25, 2011


Dying for the benefit of humanity does seem more honorable to me than dying for the benefit of your tribe (especially if your tribe happens to be one of the ones more toxic to the march of civilization).

It makes me think that honoring dead soldiers is at least partly about keeping it acceptable to send people to war.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:44 PM on January 25, 2011


I for one would like to honor fallen scientists, especially the ones through whose deaths we discovered particular dangers, and no amount of extant safety literature could have saved.
posted by rubah at 2:26 PM on January 25, 2011


e.g. Karen Wetterhahn.
posted by benzenedream at 2:28 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think part of the distinction is that death is a part (and a solemn part at that) of a military member's potential destiny. It's what he does. He wears the mantle of both sacrifice and sacrificer. When a soldier dies, it's part of what he does, and in some ways, the ultimate realization of his or her purpose. The Community has asked them to be prepared to give their lives and they have done so. Perhaps they fell out of a jeep. Perhaps they jumped on a grenade. Perhaps they simply got shot. Perhaps they died attempting to save dozens of people. But their deaths are in some way linked both with their purpose and their community that sent them into the hereafter.

Scientists don't have that connection to death. Scientists are not called to die. They might be courageous individuals that risk their lives to discover knowledge, but the act of death is what happens when something goes wrong, not right. A scientist being a murdered is a tragedy, but that's because a human being getting murdered is a tragedy. No, we don't celebrate explorers deaths, but their lives, their minds. We celebrate their careers in a way that we don't tend to do with the average run of the mill soldier (there are exceptions, but not due to those members strictly soldiering). The celebrate the scientist is to celebrate the advancement of knowledge, reason, understanding, progress, thought, and unity. A scientist can be brave, can sacrifice their life for a greater cause, but for good or ill, science doesn't demand that sacrifice as part of itself as often as war does.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 3:50 PM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm a firm believer in honoring and dishonoring the living - while I can still see the expressions on their faces.
posted by Twang at 7:49 PM on January 25, 2011


Just a little while ago, watching the rebroadcast of Anderson Cooper and his crew getting attacked by pro-Mubarak "protesters" in Tahrir Square late last night U.S. time, and looking at the Egyptian soldiers around them, it occurred to me that while soldiers usually get to face the enemy with a weapon in their hands and possibly behind armor (or from the other side of the world in a telecomm bunker in the case of drone pilots) journalists and scientists who face mortal perils for us usually do so with empty hands or at best holding the tools of their trade.

(With the exception, possibly, of the one or two safari big game hunter type naturalists mentioned in the links in the OP.)

That, IMO, balances out any factor of a soldier being able to anticipate a slightly higher chance of mortality during the course of his or her career.



As for what others mentioned and Lord Chancellor pointed out by saying of soldiers: "The Community has asked them to be prepared to give their lives and they have done so" -

I live in the United States and here we greatly value liberty and freedom. It is important enough to us, and we instill this in every generation, that I think we as a community and a society, and our ancestors, demand that the people in Tahrir Square (ميدان التحرير in Egyptian Arabic which according to Wikipedia means "Liberation Square", I would imagine that the name of the place is why they're making their stand there) be heard and not silenced by tyranny. So, while I acknowledge that fewer stand forward for the job than meet the call to serve at arms, I think that the community just as clearly asks journalists like Cooper to do what he's doing right now. (I mean, he's definitely not doing it for the money, he's a Vanderbilt ferchrissakes.)

I personally think that while it perhaps is not as explicit as it is in other societies around the world, we have a similar veneration of truth as we do of freedom and liberty, and so I think that in that respect there is a calling that is present for scientists as well as for journalists.



One last point is that another reason why it's worth considering this topic - the relative veneration of soldiers compared to others - is the changed nature of modern warfare. According to the documentary War Made Easy (2007, available for instant watch on Netflix right now BTW), since World War I the percentage out of the total number of casualties in the average war that represent soldiers dying has gone down and down and down and the percentage that represents civilian deaths has gone up and up and up. Starting at 42:30, it gives these statistics:
  • 10% - civilian casualties in World War I
  • 50% - civilian casualties in World War II (an outlier in the curve due to things like the sieges of Stalingrad and Sevastopol and the other staggeringly immense Russian casualties, I would assume)
  • 70% - civilian casualties in the U.S. - Vietnam War
  • 90% - civilian casualties in the War in Iraq
So in the 21st century it's moreso the civilians in the combat theater who are being "asked" by communities to give the ultimate sacrifice, rather than the soldiers on either side of the conflict.

With the above figures I'd be curious to see how the total number of scientists on both sides who died during the Iraq War compares to the military casualties. (Purely out of curiosity though, since in that case the scientists' deaths were of course unrelated to their own work.)
posted by XMLicious at 3:52 AM on February 3, 2011


« Older Christina Perri   |   Hello, I'm Shelly Duval. Hello, I'm Shelly Duval.... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments