Karl von Frisch was an Austrian ethologist who was one of the co-recipients of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He was known for his investigations of the sensory perceptions of the honey bee and was the first to give an accurate theoretical analysis on the meaning of the waggle dance performed by the bees. A son of the prominent surgeon and urologist, Anton von Frisch, he decided as a young boy to follow in his father’s footsteps. He studied medicine in Vienna under Hans Leo Przibram and Richard Hertwig for a while before realizing that his true interest was in natural sciences. Thus, he switched to zoology and received his doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1910 following which he was appointed as an assistant to Richard Hertwig at the Zoological Institute at the University of Munich. He had a successful academic career over the course of which he performed vital research on the behavioral patterns of the honey bees. The 1930s was a time of political unrest in Germany and he was forced to retire due to the anti-Semitic laws of the Nazi regime as he was unable to prove that he was of Aryan ancestry. He was able to eventually resume his career and retired in 1958 even though he remained active in research for long after.
Childhood & Early Life
Karl von Frisch was born on 20 November 1886, in Vienna, Austria-Hungary to prominent surgeon and urologist, Anton von Frisch, and his wife, Marie Exner. He was the youngest of their four sons. He displayed an interest in animals from a young age which was encouraged by his family.
He initially aspired to become a doctor like his father and started studying medicine at the University of Vienna’s Faculty of Medicine. He also took some classes on animal physiology during this time. Within a few months he realized that medicine was not his calling and proceeded to study zoology in Munich and Vienna. He received his doctorate in zoology from the University of Vienna in 1910.
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Karl von Frisch started working as an assistant to his former teacher, Richard Hertwig, at the Zoological Institute at the University of Munich in 1910. He soon earned his University Teaching Certificate in Zoology and Comparative Anatomy.
He became a lecturer in zoology and comparative anatomy in 1912 at the University of Munich and was promoted to a professorship in 1919. In the 1910s he began his research on fishes and proved that fishes could distinguish color and differentiate brightness. His results also demonstrated that fishes have superior auditory acuity and sound-distinguishing ability as compared to humans.
In the 1910s he also initiated the work that would eventually earn him international acclaim. He studied honey bees and showed that they can be trained to distinguish between various tastes and odors. He also discovered that their sense of taste is not as highly developed as compared to humans.
He studied the dance patterns of the bees and demonstrated that the "round dance" provides the information that there is a feeding place in the vicinity of the beehive at a distance between 50 and 100 meters. By close contact with each other, the bees could also convey information about the type of food.
In 1921, he accepted the position of a professor of zoology at the Rostock University. He moved to the Breslau University in 1923 and returned to Munich University in 1925, becoming the head of the institute of zoology.
Frisch successfully deciphered the meaning of the “waggle dance.” He hypothesized that the bees use this dance to relay information about distant food sources by performing a particular figure-eight dance. His theory was described in the book ‘Aus dem Leben der Bienen’ (translated into English as ‘The Dancing Bees’) in 1927.
The 1930s marked a period of political unrest in Europe. The Nazi regime in Germany passed the Civil Service Law in 1933 which required all public servants to provide proof of Aryan ancestry. Frisch could not prove his ancestry and also attracted negative reactions for employing Jewish assistants. Thus, he was forced into retirement. However, this decision was reversed given the significance of his research.
At Munich, he had helped to establish a new Zoological Institute which was destroyed during the World War II. Following this he went to work at the University of Graz in 1946 and remained there for a few years. He returned to the Munich institute after it was reopened in 1950. He formally retired in 1958 but continued his research.
A prolific writer, he published several papers, the most notable of which were ‘Über den Geruchssinn der Bienen und seine blütenbiologische Bedeutung: Zoologische Jahrbücher’ (The bee's sense of smell and its significance during blooming, 1919), ‘Über die "Sprache" der Bienen. Eine tierpsychologische Untersuchung: Zoologischer Jahrbücher’ (Bee's 'language'- an examination of animal psychology, 1923) and ‘Die Tänze der Bienen: Österreichische Zoologische Zeitschrift’ (The bee's dances, 1946).
Karl von Frisch was best known for his investigations of communication among honey bees. He correctly interpreted the waggle dance performed by the bees and published his findings in 1927. His theory was, however, criticized at the time of its publication though years later it was proved to be an accurate theoretical analysis of the dance.
Awards & Achievements
In 1962, he was given the Balzan Prize for Biology "For having consecrated his entire life to experimenting on thousands of bees, thus discovering a true language of gestures for communication and opening new insights into the knowledge of insect behavior."
In 1973, Karl von Frisch, Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns."
Personal Life & Legacy
During the World War I he volunteered at a Red Cross hospital where he established a bacteriologic laboratory. There he met a nurse Margarethe Mohr, who he married in 1917. They had one son and three daughters. His son, Otto von Frisch, went on to become the director of the Brunswick natural history museum.
Karl von Frisch died on 12 June 1982, at the age of 95, in Munich, Germany.