Monday, 5 August 2019

"Walther May (1868-1926) , Freethinker, Socialist, Zoologist and Historian of Darwinism" by Gaston Mayer (1987)

The below articles is translated from: Mayer, Gaston. 1987. Walther May (1868-1926), Freidenker, Sozialist, Zoologe und Historiker des Darwinismus. Mitteilungen des badischen Landesvereins für Naturkunde und Naturschutz, N.S. 14(2): 483-495.

Freethinker, socialist, zoologist, and historian of Darwinism, these are the stations of the life, clouded by tragic, of the professor of zoology at the technical college/university of Karlsruhe, Dr. Walther May (1868-1926). He detailed his career/development himself in a biographical sketch (1904, see here), so that the following only took the basic facts from it complemented through other sources for the time reported as well as for his later years.
    Walther Viktor May was born on 12.6.1868 in Marburg as son of captain Alexis Ferdinand Conrad May (1835-1870), who fell at Gravelotte, and of Elisabeth Karoline Walther (1842-1922).1  He entered junior high school in Kassel on Michaelis 1878 (29 Sept) where he soon got into natural sciences and especially into Darwinism. He corresponded with Ernst Haeckel as a 16 year old already, in order to quench his thirst for knowledge. The liberal ideas of the French revolution also attracted him mightily. As a pupil he already published essays in various periodicals during the years 1886 to 1889 and a book "Statement of Beliefs of a Truth-seeker," wherein he summarized his freethinking and socialist views. After the end of his schooldays, Easter 1889, he went to Leipzig on 20 April, in order to study natural sciences at the university.Filled with the teachings of Darwin and Haeckel but also of Marx and Engels, he tried to spread thee with juvenile enthusiasm and found an opportunity in the newly founded freethinker club/union "Humboldt," which was largely supported by laborers, and became its chairman. The university's own court, however, forbade him this activity and also visiting any worker assemblies/gatherings, and it punished him with 4 days detention room [Karzer]. When he trespassed the prohibition thereafter and tried to talk about the world's creation and end, he got expelled from Leipzig university and relegated from visiting any other German university as well. Now he was "a free man," as he wrote himself, and wandered through Saxony from town to town, and he talked about Monism, Darwinism and Socialism. He reached Chemnitz on the 22.10.1891 and became editor of the social-democratic journal "Die Presse." As such he got into conflict with the press-law. He was accused of having justified theft from need/poverty and incriminated him

[p. 484]

for blasphemy, abusing religion, and calling for disobeying the law. The court sentenced him in three cases to 12, 9 and 6 months prison in February and March 1892. These were contracted to a total punishment of 1 year and 10 months. He got detained and began his prison sentence on 4 March in jailhouse of Zwickau. Besides reading astronomical writings, he used the loneliness of the prison cell for studying the works of and about Goethe, whose objectivity and world view induced him [pronoun in accusative: ihn] to emulate him [pronoun in dative: ihm], to abdicate schwärmerei, to desist further agitation and, "after one and a half year of inner wrestling," to write a letter of cancellation to the socialist party, which earned him spiteful opinions from former fellow party-members.2 He wrote in defense: "I also now see clearly that I formed my political convictions at an age where I had neither the knowledge nor the life-experiences that are absolutely necessary, in order to judge and draw conclusions on the difficult sociopolitical questions." And in his autobiographic sketch we read: "Goethe broke my combative nature and turned me from a fighter and hotspur into a quietist and skeptic."
    After his disimprisonment he went to his mother in Kassel, where he arrived on 6 Jan 1894. On 2 April he went to Berlin taking up a job as a corrector in the print shop of his uncle, the publisher Hermann Walther (1850-1896). He did not find the work agreeable and sought recreation and edification on Sundays in Tegel (North of Berlin) at the memorial places for the esteemed Alexander von Humboldt, with whose person and work he engaged himself in detail. After gum bleeding already signaled a beginning lead-poisoning, a lucky change of his fate prefigured. He gave a presentation about Goethe's naturalist research and its relation to Humboldt, Darwin and Haeckel in his uncle's house. This prompted his uncle to write to Haeckel in Jena and ask him for counsel on how to help his nephew. Haeckel visited Berlin in September 1894 and promised to render May's resumption of his studies possible and to grant a stipend to him. May was overjoyed and could begin his studies in zoology, botany and mineralogy in the winter session of 1895 (26 Oct). Haeckel awarded him the Mende-stipend from Easter 1896 to autumn 1898, which supported hi with 600 Marks annually. May passed his exams summa cum laude on 8. May. He received a doctorate (Dr. Phil.) on 14.11.1898, for a work on the East-African Alcyonaceae [soft corals] in the [natural history] museum of Hamburg collected by Dr. Stuhlmann in 1889. During this work he traveled to Bergen (Norway) for 2 months, as an awardee of a scholarship of the Paul-von-Ritter foundation, in order to compare his material with the specimens kept in Bergen and in order to collect for the zoological institute of Jena. In October 1898, he found employment as a junior assistant at the station for plant protection in Hamburg checking imported plants for scale insect infestations. Two small works resulted from these examinations. He also worked on an exhibition of the collection of crustaceans of the natural history museum [Hamburg]. He had already worked for the museum while still in Jena [as part of his Ph.D.] by dealing with its East-African Alyonaceae together with the material of the museum in Berlin [? ... maybe Berlin should be Bergen] and the Alcyonaria of the Magalhaensian Collection Voyage [the results of this expedition were published as: "Ergebnisse der Hamburger Magalhaensischen Sammelreise," Vol. 1-3]. The farewell from Jena "the cozy idyllic nest" was hard for May. Studying the works of Darwin that he could obtain consoled him during the hazy winter days he had to pass in the metropolis.

[p. 485]
    This work ended in April 1899, after he could take up a post as an assistant of the forest zoologist Otto Nüsslin (1850-1915) at the Zoological Institute of the technical/polytechnic college/university in Karlsruhe. During that period (until the end of 1901) he also was the assistant [Hilftassistent] for the natural history collection of the zoological department, where he maintained the insect collection. In MArch of that year, he habilitated for zoology with a teaching assignment as a private lecturer [Privatdozent/ associate professor] for the forest zoology of mammals and birds, in particular. And he gave lecture/seminar/tutorial on Darwin's Life and Work. He submitted his habilitation treatise "Die arktische, subarktische und subantarktische Alcyonaceenfauna" [The arctic, subarctic and sub-antarctic fauna of Alcyonaceae] on 25 May. Prof. Kükenthal judged this work on Alcyonacee in a letter to Prof. Nüsslin on 31 Jan 1902 as follows:
"It is not up to me [I am not competent enough in order to know whether] to count this work of May as one of the best that has been published in recent years among the literature on corrals. The description of the forms are exact, as I could convince myself though examinations afterwards [after reading May]. These works are especially valuable, however, because of the open perspective of the author and his ability to derive general conclusions from the found specific facts. The literary ability of Dr. May is beyond question and his special peers will be glad if he could continue to be active in this line of science."  


[to be continued later]