Seewiesen is a small area in Upper Bavaria, situated between the lakes Starnberger See and Ammersee. From 1954 to 1999, it was the site of the Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Physiology and was the workplace of Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz for many decades. Back in 1937, Lorenz and Erich von Holst had suggested establishing a Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Physiology. But the war saw their plans put on hold. It was only on April 1, 1954 that a resolution of the Senate of the Max Planck Society allowed the realisation of a Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Physiology and appointed von Holst and Lorenz as Directors at the Institute.
To build the new institute, the team sought out an area that would allow them to observe freely moving animals undisturbed and in conditions that were as natural as possible. Water was essential, as Lorenz and his team worked primarily with geese and ducks. The area around lake Ess-See met all the conditions. In June 1955, the Society successfully purchased a sufficient area of land and the right to use the lake. Two laboratory buildings, a residential house and the necessary work stations and service areas were erected on the northern bank of the Ess-See. The Directors came up with up the name Seewiesen to describe the area. The facility was inaugurated on September 16, 1958 in the presence of Otto Hahn, the then President of the Max Planck Society.
While the facility was still being built, two additional departments were added to the Institute: the department headed by Gustav Kramer, who had long been studying animals’ sense of orientation, particularly that of birds, and the department headed by Jürgen Aschoff, whose work focused on biological clocks. In Erling-Andechs, six kilometres from Seewiesen, the Institute acquired a larger area with two buildings, which Aschoff’s department moved into. In 1959, Kramer was involved in a fatal accident and Horst Mittelstaedt was appointed head of the department on December 1, 1960. Mittelstaedt was a long-standing member of von Holst’s team, who worked on analysing the control systems of complicated orientation patterns and instinctive movements.
Erich von Holst died on May 26, 1962. A new department moved in to replace his, headed by Dietrich Schneider (July 1, 1964). His research area was chemical communication, particularly the physiology, biochemistry and biophysics of insects’ sense of smell, along with the biosynthesis of pheromones, orientation with the help of chemical sensory organs and their fine structure. The department was expanded in 1972 through the appointment of Karl-Ernst Kaißling as a Scientific Member, who worked primarily on stimulus/arousal transformation in the olfactory cell.
In 1973, Konrad Lorenz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine - along with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl Ritter von Frisch - for his pioneering work in the field of behavioural research. Tinbergen was not only a long-standing scientific colleague of Lorenz, but also an External Scientific Member of the Institute in Seewiesen from 1960 onwards. Lorenz retired in 1973 and returned to his ancestral home in Altenberg/Greifenstein (Lower Austria). His colleague of many years, Irenäus Eibl-Eibelsfeldt, was appointed head of a research unit for human ethology two years later, in 1975.
With the appointment of Wolfgang Wickler (March 9, 1973) and Franz Huber (October 1, 1973), research work at the Institute took a new direction. Wickler’s research concentrated on social biology, while Huber studied the neuronal basis of the behaviour of crickets and grasshoppers. After the retirement of Schneider, Huber and Mittelstaedt, Wolfgang Wickler had to see the Institute through its most difficult phase: as a result of the government’s Solidarity Pact I, the Senate of the Max Planck Society decided in 1997 to close the Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Physiology. The ornithological research direction was to be sustained, however. The focus here was on research into bird migration from a physiological perspective (Gwinner’s department) and an ecological and genetic perspective (Berthold’s department). This work was able to continue at the Max Planck Research Unit for Ornithology under the leadership of Eberhard Gwinner, a Director at the Institute since 1991, and Peter Berthold, appointed Director in April 1998 upon the establishment of the research unit.
An Independent Junior Research Group under the leadership of behavioural ecologist Bart Kempenaers was inaugurated at the research unit in 1999. Consultations were held on the subject of potential successors, since Peter Berthold and Eberhard Gwinner were due to retire in 2004 and 2006; Gwinner died unexpectedly in September 2004; Bart Kempenaers was appointed Director and Scientific Member in December 2003. At the same time, the Society offered a position to Manfred Gahr, who was a Professor at the University of Amsterdam at the time and had previously been the head of a Junior Research Group at Seewiesen. Gahr, who studies the neuronal basis of behaviour, took up the position on October 1, 2004 and eventually moved from the Netherlands to Germany in late summer 2005. In March 2004, the research unit was renamed into Max Planck Institute for Ornithology.
Both directors established their scientific departments at Seewiesen and continued the ornithological unit in Radolfzell as a branch of the Institute. In Radolfzell, Martin Wikelski was appointed as new director in 2008. He also helds a full professorship at the University of Konstanz.