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Palynologist as artist. Artist as palynologist.

Drawing of the pollen of Silene maritima (Sea campion) by Gunnar Erdtman (Erdtman 1954)

Drawing of the pollen of Silene maritima (Sea campion) by Gunnar Erdtman (Erdtman 1954)

Gunnar Erdtman, a Swedish botanist, is usually credited for bringing the technique of pollen analysis (often referred to as palynology) to the world (Fægri 1973, Nilsson & Praglowski 1978,Traverse 2007).  Influenced by a now famous 1916 lecture on pollen analysis given by Lennart von Post, Erdtman’s 1921 thesis was the first major palynology publication in a broadly accessible language (Fægri 1973).  He traveled widely, promoting palynology as a tool to study past vegetation and climate, and developed laboratory techniques still used in studies of pollen morphology today (e.g., acetolysis). Furthermore, he published over 200 papers and several books that established the foundation of the science. But this post is not really about Erdtman’s scientific contributions; it is a simple celebration of what Fægri (1973) referred to as his “artist’s perception of forms.”

“Erdtman was a keen observer and had a capacity for imaginatively demonstrating his findings with the talent of an artist […] and the pedagogical skill of a teacher.” – Nilsson & Praglowski 1978

An 1884 painting by Elias Erdtman, the father of Gunnar Erdtman. (From

Gunnar Erdtman’s artistic gifts and observation skills were likely inherited, inspired, and cultivated by his family. His father, Elias Erdtman, was a well known landscape painter that studied in France at the height of French Impressionism, and there were artists on his mother’s side as well.  He grew up broadly interested in both art and music.

When he wasn’t using his artistic talents to observe, describe, and document the morphology of pollen grains he apparently enjoyed entertaining his friends with his flute playing, and creating surrealistic drawings (Nilsson & Praglowski 1978), like the “self-portrait” below.

According to Traverse (2007), this is Gunnar Erdtman's "self-portrait as a wood gnome."  From the back of Erdtman's 1954 book, "An introduction to pollen analysis."

Gunnar Erdtman’s “self-portrait as a wood gnome,” as it was described by Traverse (2007).  The image is from the back of Erdtman’s 1954 book, “An introduction to pollen analysis.”

Pollen grains are strikingly intricate and beautiful, and Erdtman’s passion for art may have contributed to his interest in palynology.  However, his power as an artist also clearly benefited him as a scientist.  Although almost anyone can learn to identify the general morphological types of pollen, skilled observations are needed to discern the finer structural details of pollen-grain walls and the subtleties of surface texture that enable greater taxonomic precision.  Erdtman was keenly observant of these details.  His observations and meticulously detailed drawings laid the foundation for pollen analysis and established much of the terminology that is still used today to describe pollen features.  I recently looked through Erdtman’s 1954 textbook on pollen analysis, and was struck by the detail and beauty captured in his drawings (shown below).

Selected pollen drawings of Erdtman from his 1954 text, "Introduction to pollen analysis."

Selected drawings of pollen and spores from Erdtman’s 1954 text, “Introduction to pollen analysis.”  Insets adjacent to some pollen grains show a magnified view of the surface texture.  Images collected here come from many different, carefully labelled figures (plates).

Art informs science by focusing the scientist’s observation skills.  Science informs art by providing endless source material for the artist.  And both can inspire each other.

Finally, I can’t resist adding this humorous anecdote:

“Professor Erdtman’s devotion to palynology was unmistakable and expressed itself in many different ways. On napkin holders in various hotels he introduced himself and his wife as “I. M. Pollen” (I am pollen) and “U. R. Pollina” (you are pollina) respectively. As a consequence it was only natural to imagine and discuss during the meal, which pollen types were represented in the mixed salad being served. Thus, a good palynologist should never lose an opportunity to test his or her knowledge in the beloved science of palynology.” – Nilsson et al. (1993)

A sketch of himself riding a birch pollen grain into the sunset done by Erdtman in 1967, six years before he died.  From Traverse 2007.

A quick sketch of himself riding a somewhat (!) oversized birch pollen grain into the sunset. Done on the flyleaf of a book for a friend by Erdtman in 1967, six years before he died. From Traverse 2007.


Literature cited

  • Erdtman, G. 1954. An introduction to pollen analysis. Chronica Botanica Company. 240 p.
  • Fægri, K. 1973. In memoriam O. Gunnar E. Erdtman 1897-1973. Pollen et Spores 15: 5–12.
  • Nilsson, S. & J. Praglowski. 1978. Professor Gunnar Erdtman 1897-1973. Grana 17: 1–4.
  • Nilsson, S., V. Ukraintseva, & G. El-Ghazaly. 1993. Professor Gunnar Erdtman (1897-1 973). Grana (Suppl. 2): 1-2
  • Traverse, A. 2007. Paleopalynology. Second Edition. Springer. 813 p.

Pollen in poop reveals ecological secrets (link)

Analysis of fossil dung reveals a previous ecological relationship between an endangered parrot and an endangered plant!  A fun story… (link)

The Kakapo parrot.

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