Biography of Walter Norman Koelz

Walter Koelz

Walter N. Koelz was born in 1895 in the small town of Waterloo, Michigan, where his father, a Swabian immigrant, was the village blacksmith. Upon graduating from high school, Koelz was awarded a scholarship from Olivet College in south-central Michigan. He began his study there in the natural sciences though he eventually chose to major in languages. After graduation, one of his former science teachers recommended him for the position of staff assistant at the University of Michigan's biological station at Douglas Lake, and Koelz joined the University as a graduate student assistant. This opportunity reawakened his earlier interests in biology and he decided to pursue a doctoral degree in ichthyology, completing his dissertation on Great Lakes whitefish in 1920.

Koelz began his career as a world traveler in 1925 when he agreed to serve as naturalist to the MacMillan Expedition to the Arctic sponsored by the National Geographic Society. It was in 1930 that he undertook the first of what would become three decades of journeys to Asia, when he signed up to head the biological section of the Himalayan Research Institute of the Roerich Museum in Kulu, India. He spent nearly two years in the region before falling out with his employer and returning to the United States, moving briefly to New Mexico where he collected Native American pottery and traditional arts.

In 1932, the Regents of the University of Michigan appointed Koelz as a Research Fellow, supported by the Charles L. Freer Fund. His main duty under this appointment was to travel to British India to collect biological specimens and material culture for the University's Museums of Zoology and Anthropology (University of Michigan Regents Proceedings, 1929-1932, p. 241). It was during this two-year trip that the majority of the Museum of Anthropology Koelz Collection was acquired. Koelz returned to Michigan in 1934 and worked for nearly two years in a government parks project in his hometown of Waterloo, Michigan. He returned to Asia in 1936 on behalf of the United States Department of Agriculture, beginning a journey that would last some seventeen years, taking him to India, Nepal, and Assam, and from 1939 to 1946, to Iran. Koelz returned to his house of birth in Waterloo, Michigan, in 1953. He passed away on September 24, 1989, at the age of ninety-four.

Left-hand page Right-hand page diary

Final page of Koelz diary from the University of Michigan Himalayan Expedition (June 25, 1933-January 18, 1934).

The left-hand page is a list of bird species, while the right-hand page contains Koelz's expense records from the Himalayan Expedition Walter Koelz Collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

With the exception of the 1932—1934 Freer trip, most of Koelz' efforts in Asia were devoted to collecting biological specimens—mostly plants and birds—for various institutions, including the American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, United States Department of Agriculture, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology and University Herbarium, and Michigan State University. His bird collections alone numbered more than 75,000 specimens. Throughout his journeys he was also a prolific diarist and an astute observer of local life and customs, recording information on ethnobotany, pastoral migrations, marriage patterns, and local politics. He was, as noted above, an avid collector of a range of craft goods and artistic products, collecting pottery, wooden objects, sacred images, sculptures, and textiles for himself, his friends, and the University of Michigan. With no formal training in Asian art, he had an eye for quality, and amassed an impressive and valuable collection. Koelz' diary was recently published by Carla M. Sinopoli in The Himalayan Journey of Walter N. Koelz: The University of Michigan Himalayan Expedition, 1932–1934.