I spent the last 3 days in Oslo, attending the 80th birthday party (a scientific “festschrift”) of an esteemed scientist and friend, Kirsten Osen. It’s a long trip from San Francisco to Oslo, and back—about 15 hours in transit each way. The scientific agenda for this meeting, focusing on the primary research interests of Professor Osen (the anatomical and functional organization of the auditory brainstem) was not terribly interesting to me. Why, then, make the effort?
Kirsten Osen is one of the most capable scientists and one of the finest individuals that I have met in life. Because she established much of how we think about the basic anatomy of this complicated brain system, her research has been widely cited and has had a major influence on progress in this field. Kirsten is also distinguished in her own country for another important achievement: She was the first female professor in the history of Norwegian medical schools. Can you believe that no female had been appointed to the rank of professor in the history of the country of Norway until early in the second half of the 20th Century!? Can you guess how much smarter she must have been than the average male Norwegian professor?!
Unlike many individuals who succeed in these kind of hostile circumstances, Dr. Osen remained kindly by nature, approachable, naturally collaborative and instinctly sympathetic—while at the same time spirited, and formidable in argument—in fact, richly endowed with the essential qualities of a great scientist, scholar and teacher.
I had the privilege of spending 5 weeks in Oslo as a young scientist working with Dr. Osen. I went there for an overt and covert reason. The overt reason was to spend a few weeks examining a one-of-a-kind collection of whale brains that had been acquired by a great Oslo University anatomist (Kirsten Osen’s mentor), Jan Jansen. After his retirement, Kirsten assumed responsibility for this important collection. The covert reason was to provide an excuse for taking our family and my beloved, widowed mother-in-law back to the country of her (and my wife and childrens’) ancestors.
There was a great surprise for me in Oslo, and I didn’t find it in the whale-brain collection. That collection was unique and interesting, but the SURPRISE was Professor Kirsten Osen. Full of life and understanding and intelligent insight, strong in opinion but a good listener, with sharply held and defended convictions, but fiercely logical in argument… I LEARNED from her. She was SPECIAL. How COULD I miss her 80th birthday party.
A final story:
Professor Jansen had collected whale brain specimens by accompanying the Norwegian whaling fleet to the Antarctic, and from a whaling station in the Sogne Fjord on the West Coast of Norway. His tour-de-force was the removal of a half dozen 7 kilogram brains from 6 adult (50-70 ton) fin whales at that whaling station. Unless you have seen the massive head and skull of these great animals, it is difficult to understand what a truly remarkable physical achievement this was.
Jansen was with the whaling fleet on the last year that the Norwegians hunted cetaceans in the great Southern Ocean, in 1935. On this final expedition, he collected many valuable specimens, including a newborn sperm whale that was about 20’ in length. Jansen worked hard to preserve (pickle) these specimens on board the whaler, so that he could bring them back intact and in good condition to Oslo. Upon his return, he constructed a large metal tank about 25 x 15 x 5 feet in the basement of the Anatomy Department at the Medical School, put his “treasures” with preservatives into this tank, and sealed the large metal lid on this large vat with a heavy layer of beeswax.
One of my reasons for coming to Oslo was to help Kirsten retrieve that baby sperm whale from this great vat so that its hearing apparatus and brain could be examined in detail. You may not know that the sperm whale is probably the most remarkable hearing animal on our planet, and that almost nothing is known about either the great sound antennae in its massive head, or about what must be a truly remarkable hearing brain. Kirsten seemed to be even more excited about the other exotic specimens that she knew Jansen has stored in this large container.
Since these specimens had been sealed up in this tank, World War II had come and gone (Professor Jansen was a leader of the Norwegian resistance to the Nazis), and eventful decades had contributed to Norway’s evolution toward becoming (as it is today) one of the most advanced and prosperous countries in the world. With the wax seal laboriously removed, we knew that 47 years earlier wonderful things had been stored in this great vault. Opening it was a little like opening a newly-discovered Egyptian tomb, wondering what gold and other treasures might be found therein. Opening and raising the heavy metal tank lid was no small feat. After a long struggle, one corner was lifted up just a little…………………………………..
Imagine that you just walked through a door into a tightly sealed room in which a herd of animals had died two or three years earlier. Imagine a smell that you could believe might strip paint off the walls. Imagine an odor that instantly rolls your stomach and chills your bones. This piercing, still-remembered odor was the first indication that perhaps this treasure hunt would NOT result in finding treasures or gold. In fact, we soon discovered that the vat was filled with a thick liquid rather like a heavy fish soup. No part of any animal or brain larger than a marble was to be found. It was terribly disappointing, for sure. But with the companionship of my wonderful fellow explorer, it was a grand adventure, all the same.
I don’t know just how they removed this devil’s brew (“The Revenge of the Whales”?) from the basement of the Anatomy building. The metal vat would have had to be dis-assembled in place. I dearly hope that whoever was assigned this ghastly job received bonus pay, to compensate for the long time that it would take for them to forget that dreadful smell.