Over the winter of 1859–60, a handsome young man could be seen patrolling the shores of the Gulf of Messina in a rowing boat, skimming the water’s surface with a net. The net’s fine mesh was not designed for fishing, and the young man was not a Sicilian fisherman. He was the 25-year-old German biologist Ernst Haeckel from Potsdam searching for minute plankton known as Radiolaria. In February he wrote excitedly to his fiancée, Anna Sethe, that he had caught 12 new species in a single day — ‘among them the most charming little creatures’ — and hoped to make it a full century before leaving.
Haeckel had a degree in medicine but no interest in treating patients, whose visits he curtailed by holding surgeries from 5 to 6 a.m. A man of prodigious energies who survived on a few hours sleep, he preferred to devote his waking hours to documenting in watercolour drawings the intricate structures of different species of Radiolaria, as seemingly infinite in their variety as three-dimensional snowflakes. With no formal art training, he had an astonishing ability to record complex combinations of spirals, lattices, stars, needles and radial spokes by looking through a microscope with his left eye while focusing on drawing with
The exquisitely illustrated Monograph on Radiolaria he published in 1862, soon after his marriage, won him the German Academy of Sciences’ highest honour, but on the day of the award — his 30th birthday — his beloved Anna died of a ruptured appendix. From that point on, writes Julia Voss in The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel, he was ‘consumed by a ferocious universal loathing’ and ‘gradually gave way to the darkest nihilism’. The image is hard to square with a 1904 photograph of a twinkly-eyed Haeckel standing next to a chimpanzee skeleton with a human skull in his hand, looking like a more benign and less simian Darwin.