Personal background of Victor Smetacek

This is my wife Karen´s web page but since I am part of her story, I intended writing a few lines about myself but have ended up with a short autobiography. Sorry, I got carried away. Read Karen´s story first, which was published in August 2000 in Das Beste (the German version of Reader´s Digest).
A crude English translation is given under Presse.

I was born Victor Shahed Smetacek in Calcutta in 1946.
My mother Shaheda nee Ahad came from Orissa in East India and my father Frederick (Fritz) hailed from the Sudetenland, a German-speaking enclave now a part of Czechia. Since the original Smetaczek would have been too much for Indian bureaucrats, my father dropped the „z“ on acquiring Indian citizenship. He bought a forest estate in the hills below Nainital – a town established by the British around a lake at 2000 m elevation in the Kumaon foothills of the Himalayas, just West of Nepal – that same year. I received my schooling in St Joseph´s College, run by the Irish Christian Brothers, and acquired my BSc (in biology and economics) in 1964 at the Government Degree College, then affiliated with Agra University and now independent as Kumaon University. That same year, on the basis of my German background and not my performance at college, I was offered a scholarship by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to study a subject of my choice at any German University.

I was fascinated by bird books since my early childhood and, greatly encouraged by my parents, I spent the days of my youth bird-watching, butterfly-collecting, fishing and hunting in the surrounding mountains, and the nights poring over books on natural history in the light of a kerosene lamp. I had always wanted to be a biologist and was toying with the idea of joining the Forest Department. My attention was drawn to the ocean by an article entitled „Bread from the sea“ in a 1940s Reader´s Digest magazine in which the proposition was made that marine plankton held promise as a future source of food for humans. Since the threat of famines was looming over India at the time and I wanted to do something useful for my country, I chose marine biology and was sent to Kiel University (following a crash course in the German language) by the DAAD. My father had been a sea-farer before arriving in Calcutta in 1939 and his romantic attachment to sailing ships strengthened my resolve to turn to the sea.

Since the hopes that plankton was harvestable had been dashed well before 1964, the year of my arrival in Kiel, I decided to do my doctorate in fisheries biology. Besides, I enjoyed fishing. However, Professor Johannes Krey, who held the only chair for planktology in the world at that time, had a strong affinity to India and Indians and decided that I would work in his department on phytoplankton. He convinced the amiable Professor Kändler (then Head of the Fisheries Biology Department who had accepted me). The belief of the time, that assessing the production of phytoplankton, then considered the pastures of the sea, would improve the efficiency of fisheries, also convinced me that studying plankton would be a useful thing to do. Besides, Professor Krey was like a father to me and I felt the same kind of loyalty towards him. His kindness and dedication to science fostered a family-like atmosphere within his department.

For details of my professional life refer to

I was drawn into the student movement of the late sixties for the same reasons as the majority of the students in my year class. The times they were a-changing. We sensed institutionalised injustice lurking within the relationship between the Three Worlds exemplified by the Viet Nam war and chafed under the intellectually stultifying atmosphere of the university. We asked our elders questions that made them squirm. Anti-authoritarian iconoclasm was rhe fashion of the day in the class rooms; during the nights we jerked our bodies to wild, new rhythms on the disco floors, instinctively and effectively shaking off the stifling grip of the post-war militaristic era. The struggle to liberate ourselves and the rest of the world from the oppressive establishment became a moral urge. The movement gained momentum from the exhilaration generated by the counter culture.

I was especially stimulated by the philosophical discussions raging at the time. A brush with Marxism left me fascinated with the dialectical thinking of Friedrich Engels and the big picture of the interaction between philosophical reasoning and scientific piecing together of facts that he tried to construct in his unfinished book „Dialectics of Nature“. His arguments that science without the conscious application of philosophy would lose itself in details made sense to me. Engels´ explanations of the principles of dialectics stripped them of their mystic Marxist connotations and his treatment of natural laws made dialectics understandable to me: The unity of opposites and the inherent nature of contradiction became tools to grasp physical, chemical and biological principles. His seemingly trite examples had a deeper significance as part of a general principle or conceptual framework to elucidate form and function, bridge abstract and concrete.

Following the political disillusionment of the movement during the mid-seventies, a group of my friends, including my wife Karen, established a philosophy circle with an aim to discussing what had happened to us and where we were going. We were not willing to throw out the baby with the bath water and strived to salvage the philosophical core while discarding the political interpretations. Our approach, that a good philosophy was one that could be coherently applied to the human condition: mentally, culturally and materially, led us to read and discuss a very broad range of books. Humanities and sciences, feminists and male chauvinists, believers and non-believers were represented in our group, so the discussions were lively and carried out weekly over a period of 4 years till Karen and I suffered a car accident, about which more later.

My heritage automatically attracted me to Eastern philosophies that had been condemned as reactionary during the Marxist era. I was not attracted by the mystical, meditating, guru-following movement and instead applied dialectics to bridge the gap between eastern and western approaches to the human condition. The mental exercise of commuting between the two approaches helped me resolve the clash of cultures which I embodied. After the seventies, hereticism (being called a reactionary) was no longer an issue and I felt free and was excited by my own applications and interpretations of the dialectical method.

Karen and I had met 10 years before we married in 1975. We managed to stick together during the turmoil of changing times because we evolved together. Our´s was a dynamical relationship in which neither was prepared to yield ground simply for the sake of peace. Our mutual criticism was constructive because we empathised with each other and struggled to gain new levels of understanding. Which we did manage. She was as involved in the study of language as I was in science so we often argued, also in the philosophy circle, about the relationship between language and thought. Together with her colleagues from the humanities, she held that thought was language-based whereas the scientists, particularly myself, maintained that thinking was largely visual and language was used to describe what the mind´s eye saw. I suppose my attitude emanated from my background as a bird watcher, hunter and traditional naturalist..

The car accident we suffered on 16th April 1981 changed our lives. The details of what happened can be found in the Reader´s Digest article under Presse. She has written a book about how we coped in the following years and we consider ours to be a success story. Our backgrounds helped us open the window to Karen´s language and we would like to pass on the lessons we learned.