Horst Vierheilig, Ph. D.

(1960-2011)

horst
Courtesy of Dr. Juan Antonio Ocampo,
Granada, Spain

Horst; the gentle extraordinary scientist who always knew where he was going and loved deserts

Horst was a kind of guy worth knowing for anybody who knew him. I am very proud that I knew him quite well. My sole sorrow from our continuous relations over the years was that he was cut short before we could accomplish even a small fraction of what we planned to do. I seriously doubt if any of this will be done.

We met by purely plain accident. I gave a talk at Laval University in Quebec in 2001, a seminar on beneficial bacteria promoting re-vegetation in Baja California, Mexico. He was at Laval University as a visiting scientist working on completely differing topic; mycorrhizae fungi of some crop. Why was he interested in such a talk was revealed years later. He simply liked deserts. For somebody growing up in green Bavaria, Germany deserts are very exotic lands. At the end of my talk he asked me why not giving a “touristic” lecture on Baja to all the French Canadians in the university living in sub-freezing Quebec. I guess this was the first ever of such kind request from me. I agreed. He brought his wife, Martine, to attend. After he saw the place we lived he told me that he must come there and we have to find something in common that we can do research together. We have found. The mycorrhizae of a relic desert tree, called Cirio, still surviving from the time of the dinosaurs. Now its population is located in only a small range in central Baja California. As promised, Horst showed up in La Paz in the winter of 2005.

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Horst (right) with Luz de-Bashan and Patrice Dion minutes after the PhD defense of Luz at Laval University, Quebec, Canada.

With no special budget for the study and no expenses granted to him by his Austrian university, the very tall Horst accommodated himself in our low ceiling home, trying not to hit the light fixtures and immediately felt at home, helping me during one long weekend to fell several half dead trees in my garden, and apparently enjoyed the slow pace of life in this remote part of Mexico. For the unfunded study, we rented a small SUV, took with us big Bernardo, our greenhouse technician as technical support, extra driver and as better Spanish speaker, just in case, and hit the high desert for a week in the wild hundreds of km from any city. Desert in Baja, even in winter when it is cold, was a fascinating brand new “animal” for Horst. It took him no time to adjust. He immersed himself in sampling work in endless remote locations digging below the cirio trees for young roots, not an easy task for a plant that grows very slow for 500 years. He enjoyed this specific work so much that he placed one of the photos I took of him digging under the tree in his personal website in the Spanish scientific institute (CSIC-Granada) that he joined few years later.

The desert smiled back to Horst. Anytime we travel far from civilization, some trouble occurred. Not with Horst. We finished the mission as planed and more. Apart from the intended study we discovered a new pioneer tree of rock that its picture appear on the cover page of a scientific journal that published our study, one out of the two publications that were yielded from this one week trip in the desert. Not bad for one week in the desert.

We saw that all was going well in the desert research and planned to continue with the cirio tree study and more, employ postdocs, writing new projects; the “works” of every scientific work. Meanwhile horst decided to leave the Austrian Agricultural University and moved from Wien to a research station in Granada. At his request, I even collected seeds for him to start the work in Spain. Horst was fascinated about all things Mexico. From fish taco we ate in a road-side restaurant, to the way the ranchers survive alone in the desert with almost no resources to a lone Mexican man singing in the bar of a hotel in the desert as long as somebody keeps his glass full to the manana attitude and slow pace of things happening in Baja, California, a far cry from the environment he lived and worked. He was the perfect companion, not complaining what so ever. The day he arrived Baja he broke his tooth. Our dentist suggested a lengthy treatment for which he had no spare time, after all he came to work and there are also dentists in Austria. He did a dental emergency treatment and this was the last time we have heard that he had a tooth problem. Only much time after, Bernardo and me learnt by accident that the bumpy long rides in the dirt roads of the desert was not, tooth speaking, a rose garden. The last time I have seen him personally was in 2006 when Luz my wife received her PhD at Laval University and he was one of her external juries. I have one funny memory from the graduation. After the reception organized by the university honoring the new doctor, the committee took a group picture where Horst is towering about half a meter above the new graduate who was on heels.

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Horst in his beloved place in the high desert of Baja California Mexico in 2005

When very few saw the advantage of a foundation aimed to diffuse science for developing countries where scientific information is scarce, Horst saw immediately the advantage and the possibilities and joined The Bashan Foundation immediately once the Foundation was legally registered. He always inquired how his papers are faring, how many downloads they accomplished. He was delighted to hear how well his studies are received by the scientific community and he was one of the few who never forget to send the Foundation his new publications without ever being reminded.

When Horst decided to move to hot Granada from cold Austria, it made very little difference for our planed projects on the cirio. However, upon arriving to his new post with full package of planes, he got sick from which he never recovered. The struggle lasted years.

Horst, apart from being literally taller than most people, was a scientist as brilliant as was his stature. I will always remember the slightly shy person that performed better than most outspoken scientists, yet, his significant, outstanding contribution to science and his friendship for Luz and myself will be cherished forever.


Yoav Bashan
The Bashan Foundation
USA

Biography of Horst Vierheilig
Biography

Legacy of Horst Vierheilig
Publications
Publications dedicated to the memory of Horst

Photo gallery
Remembering Horst
Peter Gresshoff
Jutta Ludwig-Muller
Christian Staehelin and Zhi-Ping Xie
Guido Lingua


In memoriam