By Bernard Verdcourt
Åke Holm, a professional biologist and taxonomist and one of the most celebrated and respected experts on spiders, was born in Norrtälje on 3 February 1909, the son of a postmaster, Karl Holm, and his wife Sigrid (née Kindström). He was intimately connected with Uppsala where, over a century and a half before, Linnaeus had invented the binomial system of nomenclature. He obtained his Licentiate of Philosophy at Uppsala University in 1936 and a PhD in Zoology in 1940, becoming a lecturer there in the same year. From 1947 to his retirement in 1975 he was curator at the Zoological Museum of the University and, since he was almost alone, his knowledge of zoology became extensive. His interest was, however, focused on the Arachnida and by 1960 he was an international authority. Undoubtedly he was the most important worker on spiders that Sweden has ever produced; his interest was not purely taxonomic, in fact his doctoral thesis was partly devoted to the embryology of spiders and he remained deeply interested in this topic. He used time lapse photography for studies on the development of eggs of various spiders and microdissection methods for experimental embryology. His main taxononuc interest was in the subfamily of Linyphiidae-Erigoninae – very small spiders of great taxonomic difficulty. His papers were illustrated by his own fine drawings.
He worked on the spider fauna of the Torneträsk area in the northern part of Norrbotten near the Norwegian border east of Narvik and other parts of the Swedish high mountain region. In 1954 he visited Spitzbergen and W. Greenland in 1962. Much earlier he had named up or revised collections from the arctic regions, some made in the last century, and had become the foremost specialist on the arctic spider fauna.
In 1937–38 he made his first expedition to East Africa and concentrated on the spiders of Mt Elgon. He visited many other mountains when he was leader of the 1948 Swedish East Africa Expedition. The Swedes have had a long and highly successful record of expeditions to the mountains of Africa but rarely have such expeditions resulted in a more impressive array of publications both zoological and botanical. He returned to Africa many times and described a large number of new spiders from his collections. There is no doubt but that he enjoyed travelling and later he visited Ceylon (1974), Thailand (1979) and Malaysia (1981, 1984 and 1987) where he investigated a genus of primitive spiders. He was infact planning to return there at the time of his death.
Since his searches for spiders were conducted in leaf litter and other microhabitats, he naturally encountered many other invertebrates. He made a large collection of snails in East Africa which I named up as well as I could. Unfortunately, the fluid used for preserving spiders is highly unsuitable for preserving molluscan shells and much of the collection was not in good condition. To describe new species of shelled molluscs one needs both the shell and the animal or it can be done without the animal; it cannot be done, however, without the shell. He usually put all his finds, whether empty or not, into the fluid. It would have been so much more useful if the dead shells had been kept dry, but it must be remembered that collecting snails was a very secondary consideration from his main task. Nevertheless Prof. Adams and I described ten new species from Holm’s collection and a great deal of geographical distribution data was added for known species.
He continued to work after his retirement and at the time of his death was engaged in a revision of Callitrichia. Holm was not a narrow specialist but his interests extended to insects and plants. A caring man with a gentle humour he was much revered by his students for his help and inspiration.
I am very grateful to my fiend Dr Inga Hedberg (whose husband Olov was botanist with the 1948 expedition) for searching out obituaries and translating them for me.
List of molluscs described from material collected by Åke Holm in East Africa