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What's with the camel?

The statue of Knut Schmidt-Nielsen and a camel on Science Drive is more than Duke's only statue dedicated to a professor—it is perhaps the University's most puzzling landmark.
The statue of Knut Schmidt-Nielsen and a camel on Science Drive is more than Duke's only statue dedicated to a professor—it is perhaps the University's most puzzling landmark.

Duke has three notable statues.

There’s George Washington Duke, president of the American Tobacco Company that funded the Duke we know today, overlooking East Campus. There’s Washington Duke’s son, James Buchanan Duke, who stands in front of the Chapel. And then there’s the camel statue next to the Biological Sciences Building on Science Drive.

Unlike the Duke statues that sit prominently on Duke’s two main quadrangles, the camel statue is really only accessible to those who frequent Science Drive or go out of their way to find it. But its off-kilter location speaks to its symbolic significance. The camel statue was built to honor the scientific contributions of Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, who did his research in Biological Sciences while a professor at Duke.

It is the only statue at Duke that honors the contributions of a professor.

The man behind the statue

Schmidt-Nielsen became a James B. Duke professor of biology in 1952 where he specialized in comparative physiology.

But Schmidt-Nielsen—who passed away in 2007—was not always in his laboratory. The physiologist could easily be considered an expeditionary biologist, said Joseph Bonaventura, professor emeritus of marine science and conservation, who knew Schmidt-Nielsen as a colleague. Schmidt-Nielsen’s research required him to travel the globe from Africa to Australia.

“He went on grand expeditions to Africa or west Africa, and at the same time through this he maintained an active research lab in the biology building,” Bonaventura recalled.

Knut Schmidt-Nielsen's camel statue is the lasting memory of his groundbreaking research.

His research focused on how desert animals inhabit hot and dry places without losing water. Fieldwork in North Africa in 1953 and Australia in 1961 provided him with insight regarding the adaptive devices in camels that allow them to survive in such difficult climates. He found that camels are able to tolerate elevations in their body temperature throughout the day as well as high levels of dehydration, while storing high volumes of water when available.

But it was in the Duke laboratory that Schmidt-Nielsen learned the role the nose plays in regulating body temperature with many mammals and birds. He discovered that camels have adaptations in their nose that allow them to retain moisture so they can still respire and cool themselves.

Duke actually modified the Biological Science building to accommodate Schmidt-Nielsen’s research. The University paid to limit the amount of immovable furnishings and built an exterior door that would allow an adult camel to walk into the building. He was then able to bring in a camel and further his desert research. A smaller chamber existed next to the camel chamber for research on desert mice.

“His office was like a small museum,” Bonaventura said. “[It was] filled with biological and non-biological artifacts that reflected the expeditions he had been on. I remember my two daughters when they were between 5 and 10 years old would always, when we were near the biology building, say, ‘Daddy can we go see Knut’s office?’”

Ostrich eggs, vertebrae of different animals and animal skulls all lined Schmidt-Nielsen’s laboratory, Bonaventura said. There were also cultural artifacts from his trips, like tapestries and a carpet. In the back of his office, a bird called an Anhinga was caged. The Anhinga is known to stretch its wings to capture the heat of the sun, which was relevant to Schmidt-Nielsen’s research interests, Bonaventura added.

Bonaventura recalled Schmidt-Nielsen as a soft-spoken man who needed time to feel comfortable in a conversation.

“To many people, he was off-putting a little bit because of the way he spoke and carried himself in a regal—I mean that, regal—fashion,” he said. “But at the bottom of it all, he was somewhat shy. As soon as he found out...the person with whom he was speaking had substance or common interest, he was very interested in carrying out a deep conversation.”

A researcher and professor

Although Schmidt-Nielsen spent countless hours traveling the globe doing his own research, he aided several Duke students with their projects.

“He was remarkably good about giving his doctoral students free range concerning what they studied,” Bonaventura said. “If they were to come to him with a great research idea he would support them to the nth degree with allowing them to move forward with their work.”

"He has probably trained people that have trained two generations of scientists and a lot of top names in the field."—Andre Boustany

Although he would work with the postgraduate students on their studies, he frequently had the studies published without his name on them, Bonaventura added. Students were encouraged to pursue their own research instead of work on Schmidt-Nielsen’s projects.

Andre Boustany, a postdoctoral researcher at the Nicholas School of the Environment, considers Schmidt-Nielsen his “academic grandfather” because he trained his doctoral supervisor, Barbara Block—the Charles & Elizabeth Prothro Professor in Marine Sciences at Stanford University.

Block discovered some brain and eye heaters in certain warm-blooded sharks and fish as a postgraduate student under the supervision of Schmidt-Nielsen.

“While this area was not something Knut ever did work in, he recognized that he had a lifelong interest in comparative physiology that he supported her to work there,” Bonaventura said of Block, who was Schmidt-Nielsen’s last doctoral student.

Block could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

Schmidt-Nielsen’s legacy is still felt by the biology department today.

Graduate students who carry on Knut Schmidt-Nielsen's legacy pose with his statue outside Biological Sciences.

“At Duke specifically, it would be interesting to trace the number of people he’s trained, the number of really top names in the field and even the people they’ve trained,” Boustany noted. “In the early part of Knut’s career, he has probably trained people that have trained two generations of scientists and a lot of top names in the field.”

It would be fair to say that Schmidt-Nielsen invented some fields of study, which have been advanced by the scientists he trained, Boustany added.

Stephen Wainwright, James B. Duke professor emeritus in the biology department, had the camel statue commissioned to honor Schmidt-Nielsen’s legacy and because he felt there were not enough statues on campus, Bonaventura said.

Wainwright could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

On Science Drive, the life-size statue of Schmidt-Nielsen looks up at the camel statue. Both are made out of bronze. The statue was sculpted by Jonathan Kingdom, a British artist known for his portrayal of animals, and completed in 1993.

“The existence of the statue just goes to show how well-respected and what a force he was within that field,” Boustany said. “To think that they erected a statue of him when he was still working here is pretty impressive.”


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