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HELMUT SICK (1910-1991)


After earning his doctorate under Erwin Stresemann, Sick went to Brazil, in 1939. He spent three years studying birds before being forced to turn his attention to fleas, lice, and termites, “the miserable companions of . . . solitude” (Sick 1993, [ix]), when he was incarcerated, along with other German citizens, after Brazil declared war on Germany in August 1942.  He spent three years in prison, actually describing eleven new species of termites; after his release in 1945 he was employed by the Brazilian government to serve as a naturalist on expeditions to open up central Brazil to development. “What central Brazil looked like, nobody knew,” he wrote in Tukani, his delightful account of the first three years (of twelve) devoted to that enterprise. The goal was to push through virgin forests and cerrado and to build airfields from which a secure land route could be established through the area. Camp life was a rich mix of pleasure, discovery, and hardship. There were insect pests to rival those in prison (he learned to distinguish between species of mosquitos by their buzzing), Indians with whom relations were often tenuous, shortages of food and supplies, violent weather.  But there were compensations: Tukani was Sick’s personal toucan, amusing in his habits; Sick also had at one point a pet peccary named Chico, equally amusing if a bit more destructive. And, of course, he was in fresh territory for an ornithologist, doing scientific work that must have been deeply satisfying.  He was aware of the contradiction in his work: Exploring the area, opening it to development, would likely mean the eventual destruction of the habitat. The difficulties in balancing the needs of man and the needs of nature he summed up simply: “So far they [the western colonists] have only disturbed the old harmonies, without finding new ones” (Sick 1960, 223).  As his work became well known, he was offered the chance to return to Europe, but he chose to remain in Brazil, “where he spent the rest of his life and became the foremost Brazilian ornithologist of this century . . .” (Vuilleumier 1998, 470). He was, by all accounts, a man of great modesty, who lived simply in order to persist, despite difficulties, in the work he loved (ibid., 472).