Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian scientist who won a Nobel Prize for his pioneering studies of human and animal behavior that led to theories of man’s innate aggressiveness, has died at age 85.
The Austrian Academy of Sciences said Tuesday that Lorenz died Monday night at his home at Altenburg, about 30 miles northeast of Vienna. The Austria Press Agency said he died of kidney failure.
Lorenz, considered Austria’s most famous scientist, years ago could be found paddling in his swimming trunks among a flock of greylag geese, his favorite research objects.
“If you want to understand geese, you have to live with them,” he would explain.
He used to say the research into animal behavior that won him the Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology in 1973 started when he was 5, as he quacked his way to a relationship with a duck he had raised.
“It was this contact which created the soil on which all my work has grown,” said the white-haired, bearded bird lover, who gained a reputation for unconventional research methods and who held doctorates in medicine, zoology and psychology.
Lorenz turned to research in animal behavior shortly after obtaining his medical degree. He had become an animal lover as a child, collecting a variety of pets at his expansive boyhood home outside Vienna.
Up to 200 jackdaws, hawks, ravens, cormorants, storks and other wild birds also frequented the home where Lorenz returned in his old age.
His first important findings concerned the social life of birds. Those studies convinced him that many aspects of bird behavior were innate and instinctive, rather than learned.
His views were controversial, and they became even more so when he suggested that such instinctive behavior might be important in humans, too.
One of his best-known findings was that young animals will become strongly attached to their biological mothers, a process known as imprinting.
He showed that the process could be altered, however, by demonstrating that mallard ducklings would happily follow a human who greeted them shortly after birth and imitated a mother’s quacking.
Lorenz’s theory of comparative ethology--the study of animal and human behavior through comparative zoological methods--linked him to the ideas of Charles Darwin.
Like Darwin, he held that physical characteristics of species and hereditary behavior stem from trying to adjust to their surroundings to boost chances of the species’ survival.
Born in Vienna, the son of a surgeon, Lorenz was awarded his first doctorate in medicine at age 25. Further studies in zoology and psychology followed in Vienna and New York, culminating in a 1933 doctorate based on his research on the behavior of birds.
In 1939, Lorenz was given a chair in psychology at the prestigious Immanuel Kant University in Koenigsberg, then a German town and today the Soviet port of Kaliningrad.
His tenure there and publications during that time led in later years to allegations that Lorenz was a Nazi sympathizer.
When accepting the Nobel Prize, which he shared with Karl von Frisch and Nikolaas Tinbergen, he apologized for a 1940 publication judged to reflect Nazi views of science, saying that “many highly decent scientists hoped, like I did, for a short time for good from National Socialism, and many quickly turned away from it with the same horror as I.”