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MARIA KOEPCKE (1924-1971)

Koepcke’s contributions as an ornithologist were cut short by her death in a Peruvian plane crash and overshadowed by the remarkable story of her seventeen-year-old daughter, also on the plane. The girl fell from the sky, strapped in her seat, from over 10,000 feet, but survived the fall, protected by the seat and the dense rainforest canopy. Only slightly injured, she then endured ten days of hard but purposeful walking in the jungle – she knew from her parents (her father was not on the plane) that in the jungle if you walk downhill you will find a stream, and if you find a stream, you walk downstream to a larger stream, and eventually you will find people.

Maria Mikulicz-Radecki went to Peru in 1949 to be with her fiancé, Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, also a German biologist. They married in 1950, and lived in Lima for their entire married life. François Vuilleumier, who met Maria in 1965, has left a warm and vivid picture of life in the Koepckes’ home, Casa Humboldt, which also served as a biological station open to visitors:

“Foreign scientists would lodge there for a modest fee, and be provided with a room in which to dump their gear, a comfortable bed to sleep in, and innumerable opportunities to talk about tropical biology with the two Koepckes. For years, Casa Humboldt was the focal point for ornithologists doing field work in Perú . . . Ah, the intensity of these meetings at Casa Humboldt, over a cup of hot tea and German pastries. These were heated, passionate exchanges . . . Our conversations were uttered in a quick-fire mixture of German and Spanish, plus the Latin names of birds and other creatures. As the evening went on, Maria’s normally pale cheeks would become rosy and her eyes aglow with excitement. After an entire evening of such discussions, I staggered to my bed, my head spinning with ideas, and crawled under the dank sheets in the cool and moist atmosphere of Lima’s peculiar climate, exhausted but eager to go in the field as soon as possible” (Vuilleumier 1995, 102).