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Rudolf Pöch Biography

The Austrian scholar Rudolf Pöch, who was born in Tarnopol (Ukraine) in 1870 and died in Innsbruck (Austria) in 1921, is widely known internationally as a much-travelled scientific explorer. His biography is of particular relevance to the history of science in two ways: On the one hand, for his special interest in comprehensive research and material which he collected at interdisciplinary, large-scale expeditions in the following fields: anthropology, ethnology, medicine, archaeology, musicology and linguistics, as well as botany, zoology, geology and even meteorology; on the other, for his focus on documentation on a variety of state-of-the-art media. He was undisputedly a groundbreaking media pioneer, particularly as far as his early sound and film recordings as well as “field” photography were concerned.

It seems that the trained physician’s interest in anthropology and ethnography was awakened during a medical mission to India, where he investigated the plague in 1897 and which was followed by a training period with Felix von Luschan at the Königliche Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin (1900-01). After another mission to Africa to cure malaria in 1902, he started to plan his own, independent journeys with a research focus on physical anthropology. This led him to New-Guinea, Indonesia and Australia (1904-06) and to the Kalahari desert (1907-09). Upon his return, the experience he gained on expeditions added to his fame as a pioneering expert in anthropology and ethnography. In 1919, he wrote a thesis which made him the first Austrian Professor of Anthropology and Ethnology, and founded the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Vienna in the same year. As an early proponent of the genetic approach, Rudolf Pöch also undertook extensive and controversial anthropological projects in World War I prisoner-of-war camps.

Rudolf Pöch’s early death in 1921 left behind a fragmented legacy. Despite a “Pöch Commission” from 1922 to 1982, which was instituted by the Austrian Academy of Sciences, only a small portion of the valuable and extensive material has ever been published. Since he bequeathed this legacy to a variety of different institutions, an unedited wealth of material now remains largely fragmented (Project Team).

Rudolf Pöch
(1870-1921)

Portrait relief by
Gustav Schütz,
Vienna 1933