Alberto Vojtech Fric
He was born in Prague on September 8th 1882 and died there December 4th 1944. He was quite a remarkable personality. Notice the first names in the family and what they have to tell you. The grandson and son of two lawyers of whom it was expected that he would choose the path of his ancestors. He was a beautiful child, and later a handsome and interesting man of tall imposing stature, fine features and expressive eyes. From childhood he was unusually interested in plants most of all though cacti that are able to survive even in extremely inhospitable conditions of dry tropical regions. He inherited from his ancestors a good measure of tenacity and aptitude to go toward his goal, conquering any obstruction blocking his way. Thanks to that, he soon became an acclaimed specialist in his field. At the botanical conference of cacti specialists, he surprised his colleagues by his young age. They had not expected such a young man to have such broad and deep knowledge, moreover, in such an unusual field as cacti study.
Soon after graduation at the age of barely 19 years, he resolutely set out on his first journey to South America. His family must surely have kept track of his journey into those faraway regions and worried. At the beginning of the 20th century those areas were still unexplored and thus, rather dangerous. Taking into account his temperament, it was clear that they could not stop him from taking the journey to get to know the tropics of South America. The young man journeyed on foot, on horseback through the extensive regions of Chaca on the frontiers of Argentina and Paraguay a part of southern Brazil. Originally, he spent time exploring the flora and fauna but soon he became interested in the life of the local Indians. It helped him to learn several of the tribal languages. He wrote down stories from their mythology and customs, which had been handed down verbally. In time he became interested in the use of plants in native medicine. During several years, he visited South America three times. From his journeys he brought back different tools, weapons, objects for daily use, and many ornamental items. Many are to this day an important part of collections in the Naprstek Museum in Prague. Others grace private collections and collections abroad. Their value is limitless since many tribes had died out and their culture is disappearing, never to return. Personal prejudice, his informal behavior at lectures and articles stirred up in the Victorian society negative reaction, even aversion on the part of laypersons as well as specialists who had hardly ever left their office. Even in his own family he often met with opposition. His ideas to create in Prague a center of Latin American culture and preserve the extensive collections as a whole were disapproved, much less, realized. The collections of A.V. Fric met a similar fate as those of the Africa explorer E. Holub. There was left in this country only a part thanks to the narrow mindedness and incapability of his contemporaries who failed to comprehend their meaning.
The greatest sensation was caused upon the return of his third journey when Fric brought back a real live member of the Indian tribe Camakoko from Paraguay. During his stay among its members he observed that an unknown disease was causing many to die. There appeared bloody ulcers around the anus, followed by weakness because of loss of blood. Most of the diseased soon died. The local healers were not able to find the cause. It was for that reason that he brought the indian Ceruvius Pisvada Mendoza to Prague. The tall slim and brown man clad in his national costume caused quite a sensation. Besides that Fric always took him with wherever he went.
Luckily a young biologist managed to find the cause of the mysterious illness. He found that it was caused by a certain kind of roundworm. When he prescribed a potent dose of laxative all the difficulties disappeared and the man got well.
At the end of World War II at the birth of the independent state the explorer and scientist Fric left again for America. In 1921 he visited Mexico, mainly because of his first love the cacti, but he was also intrigued by the lifestyle and culture of the ancestors of the Mayan Indians. I have to admit that I have also spent some beautiful moments in Mexico. Once in the evening after taking a tour of some monuments, I saw from the bus Mexicans sitting around who looked as if they had just stepped out of an ancient relief. The next morning I saw them sitting among the monuments like some beautiful live statues.
Now let’s get back to our explorer. In 1932 he set out for the last time and retraced his first journey. When he returned, he dedicated his time to writing books. His main work is a travelogue, “Indians of South America”. All that he wrote gives testimony of his personality. Scholars as well as white inhabitants of America are slowly getting to understand his work concerning the unique world of the inhabitants of pre-Columbian America.
His life ended by sheer accident. One day in 1944 he slightly injured his hand to which he paid no attention. However, when the hand swelled, he went to the doctor who detected tetanus. Even today when it’s not detected and treated in time, it usually ends in death. He remained a scientist and scholar until the very end by writing down his feelings to serve medical science. He passed away in cold December in 1944 at the age of 62.
Let us pay homage to this honorable man, writer and scientist.Jana Volfová
translated by Paula Schultz
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