Biotype Interview, Dec. 1990

Interview with Professor Kraft von Maltzahn
Isobel Pearsall, the world renowned investigative reporter of The London and Tokyo Times, provided us with this interview on December 10, 1990.
IP Where were you brought up?
KvM I was born and raised in Northern Germany, what was until recently Eastern Germany, in a town near the Baltic coast, way up north. I lived there throughout my schooling until I went into the army for 2 years until the end of the war. I was drafted at 17, and when I got out I was 19.
IP What kind of an experience was that?
KvM Well that wasn’t exactly a pleasure trip. I was mainly at the Russian front, so I was glad when the war was over.
IP Why did you end up in the States?
KvM Well, I was finally taken prisoner by the Americans, this was in Bohemia. I was then released in Munich. I started to study at the University of Cologne when the universities were opened again in 1946. I was there for 3 years, and then went to Zurich, Switzerland, and then went to the States, to do my graduate work.
IP Is that where you were until you came here?
KvM Yes,I did my graduate work at Yale University: I was there for 5 years. When I finished my PhD, I got an offer from Dalhousie.
IP How did you like living in the States?
KvM That wasn’t really a very happy period either, since that was the time McCarthy was at the height of his power, hunting for communists in the United States, and anybody that he didn’t like, he persecuted: that was a very unhappy time.
IP Did anything happen to you?
KvM No, nothing happened to me, but because of these political tensions, I wasn’t particularly happy, so I tried then to find a position in Canada, and was then offered this position at Dalhousie.
IP Have you ever been back to your old home?
KvM No, but I’ve been back to what was West Germany several times. I always felt it was dangerous to go back to Eastern Germany when it was communist.
IP Do you have any relatives still living in your old hometown?
KvM No not really. They all moved to West Germany because the Russians took all their land – they were all landowners. Maybe now they will return.
IP How long have you been at Dalhousie?
KvM I think this is my 37th year.I came here in 1954.
IP Why have you stayed at Dalhousie all these years?
KvM I guess because I liked Nova Scotia, and Halifax, and in a sort of way I liked Dalhousie, though there was one time I almost accepted a position in Alberta, but I didn’t because there seemed to be no good reason to leave.
IP How has it changed here over the years?
KvM When I came here the Biology department had only 2 faculty members, a married couple. Dalhousie was a small place, it had only 2000 students. The department was split into Zoology and Botany, and I was appointed as the botanist. I also taught half of the introductory class. But then there was in the 60’s an enormous expansion, and I became then what was head of the department. I think it was 1963, and we really spent a lot of time with this expansion, so that included hiring of new faculty members, and also trying to get more space. Then we were in 2 floors of the Forrest building on the Medical campus. The drive was also on for more PhD programs and the Biology Department started a PhD program jointly with the Medical Sciences Departments. We started planning a new building- this present Life Sciences Centre. President Hicks, who died last night in a car accident, established a working committee on the Aquatron – Behavioral Sciences – Biology Complex, as it was then known. The chairs of Psychology and Oceanography and I were on this committee, and we spent a long time thinking about this building, but as you may have noticed, it never really became a Life Sciences centre, but 3 separate buildings. What I had in mind was that there would be a central library, and people would be able to meet there. I get the feeling that people don’t really meet in this building- there is no central focus to draw people together. I feel that departments in this university are too much separate units which have power in themselves, but do not share common goals.
IP Do you feel that it has really changed here since you started? Have the students changed, or the methods of teaching, for example?
KvM Our goals may have been clearer way back, focusing on undergraduate teaching. We were spending 7 months of the year just teaching, and the other 5 months doing research. Now there is much more emphasis on graduate teaching. The policies of granting agencies are much more competitive now, and so people have to carry out research all year round.
IP Do you think that teaching has deteriorated because of this?
KvM I think that perhaps we are trying to do too much, and that maybe the quality suffers somewhat. I’m not sure what choice the university has any more. I think the granting agencies determine more and more what is being done here, since they are so powerful.
IP What teaching are you involved in now?
KvM I teach Plant Design in the 1st term, and in the 2nd term I teach the course Man in Nature, which is really an interdisciplinary approach, and I have really devoted a good part of my time to that.
IP How did you get interested in Biology?
KvM As a boy I always wanted to study Chemistry, I think it was the influence of a particular person in the 1st year of my university studies, which changed my interest to focus on the study of plants.
IP What are your plans for the future?
KvM I think I am going to retire soon, and then I intend to spend more time on my own work, which is related to this man and nature question. I have tried to publish a book on this for years but I haven’t been able to find a publisher. As far as working, nothing will change, but I’ll spend less time with students and more time with myself.
IP Is there anything you’d like to say, before we finish?
KvM Well, I think the department is in good shape, and I hope more than anything else that the reasonably congenial and happy atmosphere that we have in this department is going to continue. That requires more than anything else that we respect each other, and that must consciously be pursued.

This interview by Isobel (last I heard she is no longer a reporter but has a consulting firm, Pearsall Ecological Consulting in Nanaimo) was done for Biotype. Kraft did go on to publish his book called Nature and Landscape in 1994. You can also find it here.


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