Ernst Both: 1930-2012


(This 1120th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 9, 2012.)

When former Buffalo Museum of Science president Ernst Both died on August 26, western New York lost not only a highly regarded scientist but also one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known. Although he was deeply informed about and productive in a remarkable range of specialties - astronomy, mycology (the study of mushrooms), languages and music - the adjectives that I think best characterize him are generous and self-effacing.

Although I knew Ernst for many years and considered him a close friend, I gained new information about him from the obituary Wayne Gall prepared for this newspaper. For example, I was not aware that he had for over 25 years consulted on mushroom poisonings for the Poison Control Center at Women’s and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo. And, although a copy of his book The Boletes of North America resides on my bookshelf, I didn't know that a bolete genus, Bothia, was named in his honor in 2007. (Boletes are a type of mushroom mostly in the genus Boletus.) I did know, however, that he was named by the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute as a “Western New York Pioneer of Science” in 2006.

Although I was a museum volunteer during Both's tenure as president/director and had gone on field trips with him, I was unaware of his background until museum trustee George Goodyear called my attention to a monograph Ernst had prepared at Goodyear's request. It was about his experiences fleeing the Russians in the middle of World War II. His family trekked first by tractor-drawn wagon from Transylvania across Yugoslavia into Hungary and from there by railroad boxcar through Czechoslovakia and finally into Saxony.

Despite the often terrifying incidents he reports, an extraordinary humanity pervades Both's story. I cite just two:

On Christmas Eve in 1945, Both set out on a long hike to cut a fir tree for his family's straitened celebration. He continues, "On the way home the sky darkened and it started to snow heavily. Soon the wind picked up and I found myself in a full-fledged blizzard. I improvised a shelter under a partly fallen tree. It was almost like an igloo. The storm lasted for hours, there was zero visibility, and I completely lost my bearings. How long could I stay alive? Harsh cold enveloped me and my empty stomach pained. I felt very tired but fought to remain awake since I knew that sleep would result in death. I was resolved to live.

"Long after dark and just as quickly as it had started, the blizzard stopped. I made my way out of the forest, still carrying my tree. Where was I? Which way should I go? The landscape had completely changed. Then suddenly the clouds opened up and there stood the constellation of Orion. Now I knew which direction I had to take."

And another: "Carrying a large bundle of firewood I was just about to leave the woods when out of nowhere appeared a Lockheed Lightning, coming at me at nearly eye-level (or so it seemed), firing his guns directly at me. I immediately dropped down behind a large log. I heard a bullet hit a small tree only inches away. As fast as it had appeared the plane disappeared, but I stayed behind the log for a while. I knew that planes often circled for a second run.

"Looking around I discovered that one area of the log was covered with last season's bird's nest fungi, small thimble-shaped 'nests' filled with tiny puff-ball-like fungi, which when hit directly by a rain drop would be splashed out of the 'nest.' This I learned much later, but the experience aroused a life-long fondness for bird's nest fungi. I took a few to give to mother."

Those are just two of the many incidents this teenager experienced during his family's flight. Although they had been very well off before the war, they found themselves having to forage for food in the forests through which they passed. Ernst told me that was how he learned to identify mushroom species.

It is my hope that the Both family will allow publication of Ernst's monograph. It attests to the life of a genuinely humane individual. I feel fortunate to have known him.-- Gerry Rising