Groupement Philatélique
France Scandinavie
30 Jun 2022

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G. H E I L M A N N


Gerhard Heilmann (25 June 1859 - 26 March 1946) was a Danish artist and paleontologist who created artistic depictions of Archeopteryx, Proavis and other early bird relatives apart from writing The Origin of Birds, a pioneering and influential account of bird evolution. Heilmann lacked a formal training in science although he studied medicine briefly before shifting to art. His ideas on bird evolution were first written in Danish in the Dansk Ornitologisk Tidsskrift. Heilmann received little help and often got considerable opposition from Danish professional zoologists of the time and he in turn often made dismissive remarks on the ideas of some of the established scientists of the time. The English edition however reached out to a much larger audience and influenced ideas in bird evolution for nearly half a century.

Heilmann was born in Skelskør, Denmark where his father was a pharmacist. He joined a polytechnic at Roskilde in 1877 but moved to study medicine. While studying medicine he became inclined towards art and considered becoming a professional. Against the wishes of his family, he quit his medicine studies in 1883 and became an apprentice painter of Franz Schwartz and later P S Krøyer. He joined Royal Copenhagen porcelain works in 1890 and worked there until 1902. He then worked as a free-lance artist, illustrating books. Some of his key works included illustrations in Schiøler's Danmarks Fugle (birds of Denmark), Jægeren in Naturen (1925) (Hunter in Nature), Danmarks Sangfugle 1926 (Denmark's songbirds), and a three-volume Danmarks Fugleliv (1926-1930). An ardent birdwatcher himself, he was one of the first members of the Danish ornithological society started in 1906. He designed the front cover of the society's journal. Some Danish banknotes were designed by him.

His major work was however published as a series of short notes in Danish published in the journal Dansk Ornitologisk Forenings Tidskrift between 1913 and 1916 and titled Vor nuværende Viden om Fuglenes Afstamning (Our present knowledge about the origin of birds). In 1926, he enlarged this and published it as an English book "The Origin of Birds". This was acclaimed for its bold ideas, depth of research and excellent illustration. He was largely self taught and essentially an amateur, he was largely disregarded locally by established academics. He however was not afraid of taking on the establishment and made his arguments clear. Heilmann was considered a quarrelsome personality. He was brought up in a conservative religious family. In later life he rebelled against religion and in 1940 he wrote a book on Darwinism and devoted the last section to arguing against religious ideas (Univers og traditionen). This included a large section pointing out how angels could not have wings since they did not have the right chest musculature. Except for this part of the book, it was overall well received.