Naturalist, physician, explorer of Siberia and Kamchatka, distinguished contributor to the study of Lake Baikal, called the “father of Polish limnology”
“As a young boy in Lithuania, I heard stories about the life and deeds of Dybowski told by exiles returning from Siberia. In the long winter evenings I would avidly listen – as to the adventures of Robinson Crusoe – as Dybowski, Dubiecki and Kietliński built a hut in Darasun or chopped ice to set nets to catch the creatures of Lake Baikal; or as Dybowski, preparing for an expedition on the Amur river, built a ship and then as he helped out the lepers in the Commander Islands” recalled Julian Talko-Hrycewicz, professor of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow (Domaniewski, 1954). For his generation Benedykt Dybowski was a true hero.
Benedykt Tadeusz Dybowski was born on 30 April 1833 in the manor house of the Adamaryn estate owned by a relatively well-off family of Polish gentry (boasting the Nalecz coat-of-arms), in the province of Minsk (now Belarus). The Adamaryn estate, named after his paternal grandparents (Adam and Mary), was located in the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth later absorbed by the Russian Empire following its second partition in 1793. Young Benedykt received a truly patriotic Polish upbringing. The family also imbued him with the altruistic desire to help other people. His maternal grandmother, Franciszka Przysiecka, was privy to the secrets of natural medicine and she would show her grandson how to collect, dry and apply herbs. “It was under her supervision that I grew to embrace the vocation of medical practice”, Benedykt Dybowski later recalled. The future physician started his medical education in Russian schools, which were run “in a fiercely anti-democratic and Russification spirit”. The teaching was done by random people, appointed to act as teachers, without much knowledge of the field they taught and devoid of any passion for their subject. There was one exception, however: Mr Rodziewicz, graduate of Moscow State University, highly skilled in mathematics and physics. Benedykt would remember him with deep gratitude. It was him who instructed young Benedykt how to perform meteorological measurements, and taught him the rudiments of chemistry and physics. In his school days, Benedykt discovered a genuine predilection for natural science, even though such subject did not feature in the school curriculum: “We felt a strong attraction to science yet we could find neither guides nor textbooks. We would breed different animals: mammals, birds and fish alike; we even set up a small aquarium in the garden.”
While studying at secondary school in Minsk, young Benedykt joined the school’s sports section – he swam, ran, played ball and rode a horse, which proved a very good physical preparation for his later expeditions. Upon graduation, he went on to study medicine and natural science at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonia). His academic paper On the freshwater fish of Livonia earned him a gold medal, but he was expelled from university for assisting in a duel as a second. He moved to study in Breslau, then to Berlin, where he wrote his thesis in zoology: A treatise on the phenomenon of parthenogenesis, on the basis of which he was granted a doctorate. Upon returning to Dorpat, he experienced some difficulties in having this degree recognised. This was a form of punishment for taking part in patriotic demonstrations in Vilnius. He was eventually awarded the doctorate of the University of Tartu on the basis of yet another (his fourth) dissertation, devoted to the study of fish: An attempt at a monographic discussion of the cyprinidae of Livonia and comparison with European species of this family.
The work of Benedykt Dybowski earned him a high reputation among zoologists. He was offered the Zoology Chair at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, then in the Austrian partition; however, the Austrian state authorities banned him from accepting the post on political grounds. For taking part in Polish patriotic demonstrations in Vilnius in 1861, Dybowski was arrested and briefly deported to the Russian interior. In 1862 he got a job as an adjunct-professor at the Main School in Warsaw (later University of Warsaw).
He was the first university lecturer to teach zoology and comparative anatomy after the paradigm of those disciplines was transformed by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution published in 1859. It is noteworthy that while in the mid-nineteenth century, it was simply unthinkable that a woman should deal with scientific research, Dybowski strongly advocated equal rights for women and collaborated with a female researcher, a certain Mrs Januszkiewicz. In 1897 he published a study entitled On the So-Called Women Question from the Position of Natural Science, in which he argued that the fair sex was no way inferior in terms of intellectual abilities to men.
Dybowski passed on his scientific passion, patriotic and social values to the youth. He believed that “the issues of science and society are closely intertwined.” (Domaniewski, 1954). He also took an active part in the preparation of the January Uprising of 1863, the struggle for Polish independence from the Russian Empire, serving as a Commissioner of the National Government. He was arrested in the spring of 1864, first put to Warsaw Pawiak prison and then transferred to the 10th Pavilion of the Citadel, where Russians kept political prisoners. He was sentenced to death by hanging.
Through the intercession of German zoology professors, the authorities commuted his death sentence to 12 years of exile in Siberia. He was sent off from Warsaw to Irkutsk by train on 10 August 1864, then travelled by horse. While in prison, he had contracted a disease of the digestive system but even though he was struggling with his own weakness, he helped his fellow convicts on the way as a doctor. In the spring of 1865, they finally reached the place of punishment. In Irkutsk exiles were distributed to nearby labour camps. As a prisoner of the Tsar, Dybowski had the right to choose his place of residence. Even thought he was forced to do hard labour, he was determined to conduct observations and studies of the local fauna. He would pick locations where he expected to find interesting specimens. His passion for science infected both his fellow exiles and the natives, among them soldiers and local officials. Everyone seemed happy to assist him with his scientific endeavours. Dybowski worked with geologists and naturalists studying Siberian nature who had found themselves in exile upon previous convictions by the Tsar, such as Aleksander Czekanowski and Jan Czerski. With their understanding of the geological past of the region, Dybowski was able to refute the previous theses of older scholars, Alexander von Humboldt and Alexander Theodor von Middendorff, who asserted, among others, that Baikal was a remnant of a fjord of the Arctic Ocean. At his own request, along with three fellow exiles: Aleksander Czekanowski (geologist), Wiktor Godlewski and Alfons Parvex (ornithologists), he was transferred to a camp in the town of Chita. Being a qualified doctor, he helped local people while preparing to move to Darasun, where a natural resort was being set up. Anyone who built a house there and made it available for the bathers in the summer was exempt from forced labour. Dybowski took advantage of this privilege and built an abode in Darasun. He could now devote his time to treating the sick, collecting natural specimens and his scientific research. His direct contact with the Buryats, an indigenous nomadic people of Siberia who had their settlements close to Darasun, allowed him to describe their lifestyle, beliefs and customs. He left Zabaykalsky Krai in autumn 1868.
He settled in the village of Kultuk on the shores of Lake Baikal, where he had a perfect base to explore the lake and its fauna. Dybowski’s collections and scientific studies contributed many new facts to natural sciences. Together with Godlewski he performed measurements of the depth and temperature of Baikal waters, establishing its maximum depth.
His efforts to create a research station in the region only came to fruition after the overthrow of the tsarist regime. When a research station was finally established upon Lake Baikal, its research vessel was given the name of “Benedykt Dybowski”.
In 1869 Dybowski was offered the opportunity to serve as a physician-scientist to the Tsar’s Commission exploring the region of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers, Manchuria and Korea, reaching the eastern coast of Asia. During the expedition, he made a number of important ichthyological and ornithological discoveries. Upon return, he planned a great scientific expedition of his own. In 1872 and 1873, together with his exiled ornithologist friend Wiktor Godlewski and a naturalist Michal Jankowski, he travelled through the tributaries of the Amur River and explored Ussuriysky Krai overland (now part of Primorsky Krai): the Far East of Russia. They made it to Vladivostok.
In 1975 Dybowski resumed the study of Lake Baikal.
In June 1877, when he finally received permission to return home, he was sorry to leave the places where he had spent the most beautiful time of his life. His valuable research conducted in exceptionally difficult circumstances brought him great satisfaction. His efforts were appreciated by the Russian Geographical Society. He was granted a gold medal and the Tsar offered him a rare privilege to take on the honorary cognomen of “Baikalsky”, an honour Dybowski firmly refused. He handed over a large number of specimens, especially birds collected in Siberia, to the Cabinet of Zoology of the University of Warsaw.
Dybowski dreamt about a research expedition to Kamchatka. Thanks to the efforts and support of his Russian friends, he got a job as a doctor in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. He stayed in Kamchatka from January 1879 to 1883. He made numerous trips to the Kuril and Commander Islands, the Sakhalin Island and other locations along the Pacific coast. He treated patients and established a few hospitals for lepers. He helped not only by his medical practice, but also set up animal breeding farms for the local population: he used his private money to buy horses and reindeer to the inhabitants of the Bering Island. He would tirelessly engage in scientific research. He collected specimens of many bird species, 80 of which had been unknown to science.
In 1883 Benedykt Dybowski returned permanently to the partitioned Poland – he was appointed lecturer of zoology at the University of Lvov, then situated in the Austrian partition. He established a Zoological Institute, where he gathered collections from his explorations in Asia, but also scientific literature and materials. He strived to stay abreast with the latest discoveries and successes of other scientists. He organised the Museum of Ethnography and Natural Sciences in Warsaw.
At 53, Benedykt Dybowski married Helena Lipnicka. After retiring, he arranged a scientific laboratory in their house, where he continued his research and prepared publications. He would also undertake short exploratory trips to the countryside.
He never stopped longing for Siberia. The whirls of history almost got him deported there once again. The First World War found him in his sister’s estate in the area of Navahrudak, Lithuania (now Belarus), which was then in the Russian territory. As an 81-year-old citizen of Austria, he was interned by the Russian authorities and ruled to be exiled to Siberia: first to Irkutsk and then to Yakutia. This decision, however, was challenged by the intercession of Russian scientists. He finally managed to return to Lvov thanks to the German army, which entered the territories under the Russian rule. Benedykt Dybowski died in Lvov, at the age of 97, on 30 January 1930. He was buried in the Łyczakowski cemetery.
He left behind about 170 scientific studies, mainly devoted to Siberia. Many animal species have been named after him, such as Phoca baicalensis dybowskii (Baikal seal) Comephorus dybowskii (deep-sea fish). His name is among those carved on the plaque on the top of the Chamar-Daban mountain range, rising between the mouth of the Angara River and Lake Baikal. The highest peak of the Bering Island was named Mount Dybowski by grateful natives. His conscientious observations and study of Lake Baikal earned him the nickname of “the father of Polish limnology”, i.e. scientific study of inland water reservoirs.
written by Zdzisław and Edyta Preisner
edited by Monika Rogozińska
translated by Adam S. Sikora
Domaniewski, Janusz (1954) Benedykt Dybowski, Państwowe Zakłady Wydawnictw Szkolnych, Warszawa
Słabczyński, Wacław (1988) Polscy podróżnicy i odkrywcy, PWN, Warszawa
Dybowski, Benedykt (1912) O Syberyi i Kamczatce, cz. I, Gebethner i Wolf, Warszawa, Kraków