If you’re not very much interested in zoology, you probably haven’t heard about Konstanty Jelski, a Polish zoologist and explorer, but he’s well worth mentioning.
Konstanty Roman Jelski was born on 17th February 1837 in a small village called Lada, in today’s Belarus. His parents, Michal and Klotylda (sister of Stanislaw Moniuszko – a Polish composer), were prosperous, which allowed young Konstanty to get well educated.
After finishing secondary school in Minsk, for 3 years Konstanty studied medicine in Moscow, from where he moved to Kiev to study at Science and Environmental Department. Unfortunately, in 19th century’s Poland, a way to a scientific career led through one of the occupant’s university (Russian, Prussian or Austrian). It wasn’t easy to resist the forceful imposition of German or Russian culture and language, when anything related to Poland was banned. But as you know, Poles managed to live and keep their identity through 123 years of partitions. But we have great examples of how hard it is in today’s world. According to International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights 50% of Tibetans are analphabets and Chinese educational policy is called “assimilating”. We, Poles, have heard that before…
In 1858 Konstanty submitted a dissertation about birds’ tracheae and obtained a gold medal and master’s degree. He spent a few years working at Zoology Department as a keeper and in 1863 was offered a teacher position at the university, but he refused saying he wasn’t capable of such an honour. He wanted to continue his education in Germany, but he landed in… Turkey, where he made his living by colouring maps for schools.
In 1865 he went to Paris and in July on board of “Amazon” he sailed for French Guiana. You can find Konstanty’s stories from 1865-1871 in his book, which unfortunately is hard to get and it was published in Polish. But when reading it you can find out how dedicated to his work he was. I think we can easily say his work was his passion. He went through hell when he thought he would have to stay aboard while in Madeira, because “some snails’ and insects’ species are not present outside Madeira” and it was such a great opportunity to see them.
After four years in Guiana he went to Peru, where he stayed for ten more years. From 1868 he was supported by count Konstanty Branicki from Poland (explorer and naturalist himself) who wanted Jelski to go deeper into South America to collect specimen and then send them to Poland. Thanks to this cooperation many examples of South American fauna and flora were sent to Poland and tens if not hundreds of dissertations were based on them. To give you a sample – 300 species of spiders were collected and posted by Jelski, only from Peru…
But it’s not that he concentrated only on work, apparently he wanted to marry a Peruvian woman, but I guess none of them was interested 😀 After coming back to Poland he married his cousin, Helena Korsakowna and became the curator of the Natural History Department of Academy of Learning in Krakow. The salary must have been low as he went very often to Dalmatia (today’s Croatia) or France to collect specimen and sell them afterwards to support the family budget. Apparently, if he didn’t have to waste time to earn more money he would have become even a greater scientist. He was making Chinese ink that was as good as the original one. His fruit wines were so good that people weren’t able to guess what fruits they were made of.
Konstanty was 58 at the time of his death, so still quite young. Ha had a stroke and was told by the doctor to rest in bed, but Konstanty was not the resting type, he’d always had so much to do. He had another stroke and on 26th November 1896 Konstanty Jelski died.
Konstanty Jelski was a typical 19th century’s Polish scientist – educated at foreign university, dedicated his life to science. Many young scientists (not only Polish ones) made use of specimen collected and discovered and studies conducted by Jelski in South America and he still is an acclaimed ornithologist and zoologist.