His worldview was reflected in all his acts.
Thomas van der Hammen was, definitively, one of the personalities that most contributed to the progress of sciences in Colombia history. His studies about Andean ecosystems and tropical palynology, are today a reference point to understand the environmental history of South America.
He was born in Schiedam, Netherlands on September 27th, 1924. After the Second World War, with so single 20 years of age, he started his studies in Botany and Palaeontology at Leiden University, where he was trained as a palynologist by the very pioneers on the subject. Such was his enthusiasm about natural history, that in his Doctoral dissertation he reconstructed the floral patterns during the last glacial period in The Netherlands.
After his arrival in Colombia in 1951, engaged by the Colombian Geological Survey, he started his pioneering research on Cretaceous and Cenozoic sediments. The 50’s would be a decade of intensive work and scientific findings at his very new home. In 1959, he returned to The Netherlands where he trained both Dutch and Colombian students to work with all kind of tropical ancient and recent ecosystems. His studies are enshrined in more than 400 scientific publications as well as in several books series such as The Quaternary of Colombia, Studies of Tropical Andean Ecosystems and Studies on Colombian Amazonia that together account for more than 45 volumes. Dr. Thomas studied the Colombian territory as a whole. Without doubt, his holistic worldview gained from subjects as diverse as geology, archaeology, geography and biology, allowed him to clearly understand important tropical ecosystems like páramos and wetlands.
He often visited our mountains, volcanoes, valleys and lakes. In 1991, after his retirement he decided to stay here in Colombia, one of the most diverse countries in the world and to which he dedicated almost his entire life. He was also a deeply religious man. To him, scientific and mystic knowledge should be considered together, since only joining them it would be possible to unveil the world hidden in nature.
He had a great devotion to St. Francis. Such was his allegiance that he built up a church in his farm Santa Clara, where he lived until his death, in 2010. In his back garden, he started to seed plants at an age of 75. A crazy idea, some people told him. But in less than 5 years, that forest, 100% native, was mature enough to attract further natural life. Birds, insects and rodents were only the beginning of a beautiful moist forest which remains today. He demonstrated us, once again, that small changes can make the difference.
His legacy continues. At the northern part of Bogota there is an important natural reserve named after him due to his work and enormous contribution to the understanding of Cenozoic tropical climatic dynamics. He was convinced that awareness and education were needed to reduce the impact of human beings on Earth. Hopefully, this natural reserve will remain intact to teach the next generations the importance of healthy ecosystems.
A little over a month ago would have been his 93th birthday. Some people still call him The Great last Naturalist. I do so. Rest in peace.
I would like to thank my Colleague and friend Cristian Benavides for his comments.
Featured image: Bogota savanna panoramic view, from eltiempo.com
La filosofía de vida de Thomas van der Hammen | ELESPECTADOR.COM. [online] ELESPECTADOR.COM. Available at: https://goo.gl/i1Uv84
El último gran naturalista | ELESPECTADOR.COM. [online] ELESPECTADOR.COM. Available at: https://goo.gl/bmJaPM
Thomas Van Der Hammen, El maestro | FUCSIA.CO [online] FUSCIA.CO. Available at: https://goo.gl/iBCRrQ
Hoorn, C. and Wesselingh, F. (2011). Amazonia, Landscape and Species Evolution. 1st ed. Somerset: Wiley.