Aging Darwin: He may have been inspired by a Norwegian who lived in Galapagos when he visited the archipelago as a young man. (Photo: Unknown / Public Domain)
A Norwegian living on the Galapagos Islands may have changed the history of biology.
Nicolai Olaus Lossius was baptized in Veøy Church outside Molde in late 1790. No one in his family where sailors, yet he settled far from Molde and never returned.
At 16, he went to sea, and one day many years later fate wanted him to meet a young man who would become one of the world’s most famous scientist.
On 24 September 1835, HMS Beagle anchored up in Floreana of the Galapagos Islands. On board the ship was the 26-year-old theology student and coming scientist Charles Darwin.
The local governor was not present to greet him and the others on the ship, so the lieutenant governor welcomed them. The lieutenant governor was Nicholas Oliver Lawson.
In fact, that was not his real name. He was Nicolai Olaus Lossius from Norway.
Librarian Anders Kvernberg at the National Library of Norway has tracked Lossius through old letters, church records, sailor records and newspapers. He wanted to find out whether it was possible that Lossius actually met Darwin in Floreana.
– It is a crazy story, and it was most probably Lossius who met Darwin on Galápagos, says Anders Kvernberg to forskning.no.
Beginning of evolution
Darwin noticed that giant turtles and several other species were different from one Galapagos Island to another, and this is one of the foundations for the theory of evolution. The idea that organisms adapt to their environment over time began to take shape.
However, this is where Lossius may have contributed with a special insight. Kvernberg is citing Darwin’s expedition report after the Beagle voyage:
I had not yet noticed this archipelago’s most striking feature: The various islands were inhabited by very different species. The lieutenant governor, Mr. Lawson, who said tortoises varied from island to island, and that he could look at them and tell island they came from, first made me aware of this. (…) I could never have imagined that the islands situated so close to each other, with exactly the same climate and environment could have such different wildlife. 1
This was written ten years after the expedition, and Darwin was not very interested in the giant tortoises. According to Kvernberg’s article, the terrapins traveling on the HMS Beagle was eaten during the voyage.
The important Norwegian
Lawson, or Lossius, invited the Beagle captain FitzRoy for dinner, and told the guests that he could tell which island a tortoise came from, just by looking at its shell.
Several historians agree that Lawson’s comment may have been very important for Darwin’s work. In 1963, the British biologist David Lack speculated about that “The Origin of Species” had never been written if it were not for Lawson’s comment.
– Darwin-experts have long known about Lawson, but his identity has remained a mystery, says Kvernberg.
The game of coincidences
Kvernberg was drawn into this study by coincidence, the same way Lossius might have been in the right place at the right time to inspire a young Darwin.
– Dutch physician and author Marcel Eugéne Nordlohne was working on a project about coincidences. He contacted us and wanted to detect unknown people who had appeared and played a significant role in world history, only to disappear again. Nordlohne had a theory that Lawson was Norwegian.
The Hunt for Lawson
Kvernberg says he was skeptical about the theory, but did a quick check in the library to see if he could track down anything. He had to find evidence that Nicholas Oliver Lawson and Nicolai Olaus Lossius was the same person, and that Lossius was on the Galapagos Islands at the same time as Darwin.
– In recent years, several quirky and obscure books have been digitized, and I found a little booklet about the Lossius family from 1863.
In this little booklet, Kvernberg found the answer: Eleven letters written by Lossius towards the end of his life, which he had sent to relatives in Norway. In one of the letters, Lossius mention that he had been sick only once while he was lieutenant governor in Floreana in 1835, the same year Darwin was on the island.
The letter was signed N.O. Lawson.
Kvernberg points out that one should be careful with biographical information when it comes from people writing about themselves. However, the story was confirmed through documents and sources from among other Chilean archives.
But, who was Nicolai Olaus Lossius, and how did he end up in the Galapagos?
– I have an impression that he was a very social and strong-willed man. He went straight on and built himself up again after he went bankrupt and lost everything.
Lossius experienced a lot as a sailor. In 1809, pirates on the north coast of Africa captured him. After he regained freedom, he worked as a sailor in the US for a few years and became an American citizen. He also fought in the war of 1812 against England. Lossius (now Lawson) was captured in Gibraltar, but escaped and settled in England.
Later, he moved and became a trader in Canada, and made a fortune. However, it did not last, and he went bankrupt in 1816.
Lawson then traveled to Chile, probably because the country had an urgent need for sailors. He was eventually included in the Chilean Navy, where he distinguished himself in several battles.
Because of injuries he had suffered in wars through life, he demobilized from the army. In the early 1820’s he started as a ship owner and skipper in Valparaíso in Chile. At this time, he also had several long visits to the Galapagos Islands.
Lossius became more and more involved on the Galapagos Islands, and stayed on Floreana for extended periods. Several other visitors mention the “Englishman” Lawson, and he was a very knowledgeable and energetic type.
Stories from the Sea?
He also had a wife and children in Valparaíso, and began corresponding with relatives in Norway. These letters appeared in Kvernberg’s studies.
– When I read these letters for the first time, I thought it was an old sailor telling quirky stories from his own life, says Kvernberg.
– But much of what he tells in his letters are confirmed. I was quite impressed when it actually turns out to be true stories.
Lawson had forgotten his Norwegian language, and had not been in Norway since he was 16 years old. The letters were written in English, but he had become like a native Chilean.
Lawson died in Valparaíso on March 1, 1851 – eight years before Darwin released “The Origin of Species.”
1Translated back to English from a Norwegian translation by ThorNews
Text modified by: Anette Broteng Christiansen, ThorNews