Nikolaas Tinbergen


I was born in The Hague, Netherlands, on 15th April 1907, the third of five children of Dirk C. Tinbergen and Jeannette van Eek. We were a happy and harmonious family. My mother was a warm, impulsive person; my father – a grammar school master in Dutch language and history – was devoted to his family, a very hard worker, and an intellectually stimulating man, full of fine, quiet humour and joie de vivre.

I was not much interested in school, and both at secondary school and at University, I only just scraped through, with as little effort as I judged possible without failing. Wise teachers, including my University Professors in Leiden, H. Boschma and the late C. J. van der Klaauw, allowed me plenty of freedom to engage in my hobbies of camping, bird watching, skating and games, of which playing left-wing in grass hockey teams gave me free rein for my almost boundless youthful energies.

Throughout my life, Fortune has smiled on me. Holland’s then unparalleled natural riches – its vast sandy shores, its magnificent coastal dunes, the abundant wildlife in its ubiquitous inland waters, all within an hour’s walk of our urban home – delighted me, and I was greatly privileged in having access to the numerous stimulating writings of the two quite exceptional Dutch naturalists, E. Heimans and Jac P. Thijsse – still household names in the Netherlands.

As a boy, I had two small aquaria in our backyard, in which I watched, each spring, the nest building and other fascinating behaviours of Sticklebacks. My natural history master at our High School, Dr. A. Schierbeek, put some of us in charge of the three seawater aquaria in the classroom, rightly arguing to the Head Master that I got plenty of fresh air, so that no one needed to worry about my spending the morning break indoors.

Having been frightened off by what I had been told of academic Biology as it was then taught in Leiden, I was at first disinclined to go to University. But a friend of the family, Professor Paul Ehrenfest, and Dr. Schierbeek urged my father to send me, in 1925, to Professor J. Thienemann, the founder of the famous ‘Vogelwarte Rossitten’, and the initiator of bird ringing. While Thienemann did not quite know what to do with this awkward youth, the photographer Rudy Steinert and his wife Lucy took me along on their walks along the uniquely rich shores and dunes of the Kurische Nehrung, where I saw the massive autumn migration of birds, the wild Moose, and the famous Wanderdünen. Upon my return to Holland, Christmas 1925, I had decided to read Biology at Leiden University after all. Here I had the good fortune to be befriended by Holland’s most gifted naturalist Dr. Jan Verwey, who instilled in me, by his example, a professional interest in animal behaviour (he also beat me, much to my humiliation, in an impromptu running match along the deserted Noordwijk seashore – two exuberant Naked Apes!). I owe my interest in seagulls to early imprinting on a small protected Herring Gull colony not far from the Hague, and to the example of two fatherly friends, the late G. J. Tijmstra and Dr. h. c. A. F. J. Portielje.

Having scraped through my finals without much honour, I became engaged to Elisabeth Rutten, whose family I had often joined on skating trips on the Zuiderzee; this made me realise that some day I would have to earn a living. Influenced by the work of Karl von Frisch, and by J.-H. Fabre’s writings on insects, I decided to use the chance discovery of a colony of Beewolves (Philanthus – a digger wasp) for a study of their remarkable homing abilities. This led to an admittedly skimpy but still quite interesting little thesis, which (as I was told later) the Leiden Faculty passed only after grave doubts; 32 pages of print were not impressive enough. But I was itching to get this milestone behind me, for, through the generosity of Sidney Van den Bergh, I had been offered the opportunity of joining the Netherlands’ small contingent for the International Polar Year 1932-33, which was to have its base in Angmagssalik, the homeland of a small, isolated Eskimo tribe. My wife and I lived with these fascinating people for two summers and a winter just before they were westernised. Our first-hand experience of life among this primitive community of hunter-gatherers stood us in good stead forty years laters when I tried to reconstruct the most likely way of life of ancestral Man.

Upon our return to Holland, I was given a minor instructor’s job at Leiden University, where in 1935 Professor C. J. van der Klaauw, who knew how to stretch his young staff members, told me to teach comparative anatomy and to organise a teaching course in animal behaviour for undergraduates. I was also allowed to take my first research graduates into the field and so could extend my official 12-day annual holiday to an annual two months’ period of field work. This we used for further studies of the homing of Beewolves and behaviour studies of other insects and birds.

In 1936 Van der Klaauw invited Konrad Lorenz to Leiden for a small symposium on ‘Instinct’, and it was then that Konrad and I first met. We ‘clicked’ at once. The Lorenzes invited us, with our small son, for a fourmonths’ stay in their parental home in Altenberg near Vienna, where I became Lorenz’ second pupil (the first being Dr. Alfred Seitz, of the Seitz’s Reizsummenregel). But from the start ‘pupil’ and ‘master’ influenced each other. Konrad’s extraordinary vision and enthusiasm were supplemented and fertilised by my critical sense, my inclination to think his ideas through, and my irrepressible urge to check our ‘hunches’ by experimentation – a gift for which he had an almost childish admiration. Throughout this we often burst into bouts of hilarious fun – in Konrad’s words, in Lausbuberei.

These months were decisive for our future collaboration and our lifelong friendship. On the way back to Holland, I shyly wrote to the great Von Frisch asking whether I could call at his already famous Rockefeller-built laboratory in Munich. My recollection of that visit is a mixture of delight with the man Von Frisch, and an anxiety on his behalf when I saw that he refused to reply to a student’s aggressive Heil Hitler by anything but a quiet Grüss Gott.

In 1938 the Netherlands-America Foundation gave me free passage to and from New York, which I used for a four months’ stay, eked out by fees for lectures given in halting English, by living for one dollar a day in YMCAs (40 c for a room, 50 c for a day’s food, and 2 nickels for the subway), and travelling by Greyhound. During that visit I met Ernst Mayr, Frank A. Beach, Ted Schneirla, Robert M. Yerkes (who offered me hospitality both in Yale and Orange Park, Florida) and many others. I was frankly bewildered by what I saw of American Psychology. I sailed for home shortly after the Munich crisis, bracing myself for the dark years that we knew were lying ahead.

There followed a year of intense work, and of lively correspondence with Lorenz, which was broken off by the outbreak of war. Both of us saw this as a catastrophe. Wir hätten soviel Gutes vor, wrote Lorenz before the evil forces of nazism descended on Holland.

In the war I spent two years in a German hostage camp while my wife saw our family through the difficult times; Lorenz was conscripted as an Army doctor and disappeared during the battle of Witebsk; he did not emerge from Russian prison camps until 1947. Our reunion, in 1949, in the hospitable home of W. H. Thorpe in Cambridge, was to both of us a deeply moving occasion.

Soon after the war I was once again invited to the United States, and to Britain, to lecture on our work on animal behaviour. Lasting friendships with Ernst Mayr and David Lack proved decisive for my later interest in evolution and ecology. The lectures in the U.S. were worked out to a book ‘The Study of Instinct’ (1951); and my visit to Oxford, where David Lack had just taken over the newly founded Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology, ultimately led to our accepting the invitation of Sir Alister Hardy to settle in Oxford.

Apart from establishing, as Hardy had asked me, a centre of research and teaching in animal behaviour, I spent my Oxford years in seeing our newly founded journal Behaviour through its early years, in helping to develop contact with American psychology (of which we were perhaps excessively critical), and in fostering international cooperation. This work would not have been possible without the active help, behind the scenes, of Sir Peter Medawar (who urged the Nuffield Foundation to finance our little research group through its first ten years) and of E. M. Nicholson, who allocated generous funds from the Nature Conservancy which, with hardly any strings, was to last until my retirement. When Professor J. W. S. Pringle succeeded Alister Hardy as Head of the Department of Zoology in Oxford, he not only supported and encouraged our group, but also interested us in bridging the gap (so much wider than we had realised) between ethology and neuro-physiology. By founding the new inter-disciplinary Oxford School of Human Sciences he stimulated my still dormant desire to make ethology apply its methods to human behaviour.

Our research group was offered unique opportunities for ecologically oriented field work when Dr. h. c. J. S. Owen, the then Director of Tanzania’s National Parks, asked me to help him in founding the Serengeti Research Institute. A number of my pupils have since helped to establish this Institute’s world fame; and the scientific ties with it have remained strong ever since.

Our work received recognition by various proofs of acceptance by the scientific community, among which I value most my election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1962; as a Foreign Member of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen in 1964; the conferment, in 1973, of the honorary degree of D. Sc. by Edinburgh University; and the awarding of the Jan Swammerdam medal of the Genootschap voor Natuur-, Genees-, en Heelkunde of Amsterdam in 1973.

In recent years I have, with my wife, concentrated my own research on the socially important question of Early Childhood Autism. This and other work on the development of children has recently brought us in contact with Professor Jerome S. Bruner, whose invigorating influence is already being felt throughout Britain. My only regret is that I am not ten years younger, so that I could more actively join him in developing his centre of child ethology in Oxford.

Among my publications the following are representative of my contributions to the growth of ethology:

1951 The Study of Instinct – Oxford, Clarendon Press
1953 The Herring Gull’s World – London, Collins
1958 Curious Naturalists – London, Country Life
1972 The Animal in its World Vol. 1. – London, Allen & Unwin; Harvard University Press
1973 The Animal in its World Vol. 2. – London, Allen & Unwin; Harvard University Press
1972 (together with E. A. Tinbergen) Early Childhood Autism – an Ethological Approach – Berlin, Parey

From Les Prix Nobel en 1973, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1974

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.


Nikolaas Tinbergen died on December 21, 1988.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1973

To cite this section
MLA style: Nikolaas Tinbergen – Biographical. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Fri. 29 Sep 2023. <>

Back to top Back To Top Takes users back to the top of the page

Coming up

This year’s Nobel Prize announcements will take place 2–9 October. All announcements will be streamed live here on

See the full schedule
Announcement dates

Explore prizes and laureates

Look for popular awards and laureates in different fields, and discover the history of the Nobel Prize.