Aristide Caradja, Princeps Biologorum Romaniae (1861-1955), discovered thousands of species of butterflies and compiled the most comprehensive catalog of Microlepteropterae. "3000 types (species, varieties, forms, aberrations) discovered and described by Caradja. How many systematician naturalists worldwide, from Linné to our days, can be compared with Aristide Caradja in terms of richness of material studied and presented new knowledge?" (Traian Săvulescu)
Born in Dresden in 1861, Aristide was the seventh child of a well-off family of Greek extraction. His paternal ancestors had settled in Wallachia in the 17th century, some of them even reaching top positions in the principality. His mother also came from an illustrious family – Şuţu – of Phanariot descent. After completing his secondary education in Dresden, he followed the advice of his father and read law at the Law Faculty of Toulouse, but this was also the time when he developed a passion for natural sciences, a field in which he was going to acquire an impressive expertise. His first publication, on the butterflies from Haute Garonne, dates from 1891, but the rich Lepidoptera material (848 species) had been collected several years previously, during the time of his studies in France. That was the beginning of a collection that would go on growing for 56 years (1887-1943).
1887 was the year of the loss of his father and of his return to Romania, where he settled permanently at Grumăzeşti, in a manor situated in the middle of an immense forested park. He seldom travelled, but kept in permanent touch with great specialists in Microlepidoptera from London, Berlin, Bonn, Vienna, St Petersburg, Stockholm, etc., receiving from them a lot of materials which he studied, describing hundreds of new species. His collection was already significant at that point, but he went on enriching it by the acquisition of famous private collections, exchanges with great collectors, and acquisition of rare species, for which he never hesitated to pay considerable sums of money. Moreover, Aristide Caradja subsidised expeditions to Asia, Spitzbergen, North Africa, Spain, and South America, receiving in return collectable Microlepidoptera.
Due to his reputation as a consummate specialist, several famous expeditions, such as those of Sven Hedin, Max Korb, Paul Chrétien, Karl Ribbe, sent him their Microlepidoptera materials for study. He was also commissioned to do the revision of the whole Microlepidoptera collection of the British Museum, the biggest in the world. Millions of Microlepidoptera passed through his hands and before his eyes. From Hermann Hohne’s Chinese collection alone, Caradja studied and classified 400,000 items.
The papers published in the best known international reviews, as well as in the Romanian Academy Journal, brought him an enormous prestige. If in a first period (1891-1924) they were primarily interested in systematising, in the description of new species, Aristide Caradja moved on later towards trying to unravel the mystery of the origin and development of the Lepidoptera fauna. He turned from analyses to generalizations, using data offered by paleo-geography and paleo-climatology to present new theoretical views on the biography and systemic organization of Lepidoptera. He also studied the mechanisms of mutation.
In Aristide Caradja’s opinion, Central Asia was where the Lepidoptera colonization of the Eurasian continent, of the whole world even, started. It is worth noting that Aristide Caradja was, at that moment, the best acquainted with the Asian Lepidoptera fauna. He studied the materials of the Hermann Hohne collection, gathered in China during the 1917-1923 expedition, describing 927 species, 271 of which were endemic and 91 new. Aristide Caradja’s collection owes its great scientific value to the rich Microlepidoptera material gathered in various regions of China, which places it among the most important collections in the world, but also to the 3000 types, the items that enabled the description of the new species and that have a special scientific value. Besides Microlepidoptera, the collection also contains 5000 Macrolepidoptera, big diurnal butterflies that enchant the eye with their forms and colours. Among them, the famous Morpho, from the Amazonian jungles, Chrysiridia madagascariensis, considered the most beautiful butterfly in the world, and Ornithoptera, the bird-butterflies from Borneo. Aristide Caradja sacrificed his entire fortune and put a lot of work into his collection, but on its basis he could build an important scientific work, which revealed the profoundness and originality of his thinking.
In 1937, Aristide Caradja published a philosophical synthesis entitled Meine Weltanschauung (My Conception of the Universe), which, as he confessed in a letter of January 28, 1938, to Aurelian Popescu, he had sent out into the world in the hope that with it I could help some people find a peace of mind similar to that I am enjoying now, after a lifetime of restlessness and doubts. He lived a long life – almost a century – he lived through adverse times, but also through serene moments, which he experienced with the wisdom of a philosopher.