Ernst Stromer had an aristocratic standing in German society (the "Freiherr" in his name roughly equals "baron" in English); his father had been the mayor in his home city of Nuremberg, and his ancestors had been lawyers, courtiers, scientists, architects, and other leaders.
Ernst Stromer was married to Elisabeth Rennebaum (1886-1977) in 1920 and had three sons (Ulman, Wolfgang, Gerhart), all of whom became soldiers in the German army. Two died, while the third Wolfgang was taken prisoner by the Soviets. Many assumed that he had died, until he was returned to Germany in 1950.
On 7 November 1910, Stromer arrived for a paleontological expedition in Alexandria, Egypt, aboard the Norddeutscher Lloyd steamship Cleopatra. Stromer was still aboard the ship two days later, however, because the ship had been put into quarantine; a physician had revealed a third-class passenger to have a disease he suspected to be cholera.
Finally, on Wednesday, 9 November, the doctor announced that the passengers could be released and, after a night's stay at a hotel, Stromer and his companions set out by train to arrive in Cairo the next day.
After checking into the hotel in Cairo, Stromer found a letter of welcome waiting for him at the post office from the director of the Geological Survey of Egypt. Stromer was a man who observed the formalities, and the second thing he did that afternoon was to visit the office of George Steindorff, a reputable German Egyptologist, as a matter of courtesy and to plan the future expedition.
On 14 November, Stromer went to meet with John Ball, the founder of the Desert Survey Department of the Geological Survey of Egypt. In that year, the survey had published the first topographic map of Egypt, and was finishing a geological map that was to be published in 1911. Both sources were invaluable to Stromer, now planning his upcoming expedition to Bahariya, an area of the Western Desert that was little known.
On 15 November, Stromer was worried. There was a missing person; Richard Markgraf was a person of European descent who had fallen in love with the Western Desert and stayed there. Markgraf had lived in a small village just south of Cairo, known as Sinnuris. There is no record of how Markgraf came to Stromer's attention.
Markgraf and Stromer met during the winter of 1901–1902, and got along very well. Markgraf was Stromer's Sammler, or fossil collector, for 10½ years, and became Stromer's friend. Markgraf, however, was often ill. It is unclear whether the cause was malaria, intestinal bleeding from typhoid, or chronic amebic dysentery.
On that morning, Stromer was worried that Markgraf was having another one of his spells, and needed him desperately to help plan the expedition. So far, he had not appeared and all attempts to contact him had failed. However, his worrying vanished the moment he opened the door to his hotel room; for there, sitting on a chair, was Richard Markgraf.
The plan for the expedition contained three parts; first, Stromer and Markgraf would travel northwest from Cairo to Wadi el Natrun. After exploring the area for a few weeks, they would return to Cairo, replenish their supplies, and afterwards head south to Luxor to explore the eastern slopes of the Nile Valley.
However, gaining permission to enter the desert was no longer easy. Even in 1910, tension was growing between Germany and Britain, and both were wary of the other country's activities anywhere in the world. However, Stromer finally got the permits.
Stromer and Markgraf took the train from Cairo to Giza, where they joined their camel driver, Oraan. At 9:40 am on 19 November, they began hiking across Giza plateau. Stromer was intent on finding the fossils of early mammals in North Africa. At the time, it was widely believed that mankind had originated in Europe of the northern continents, not Africa, but Stromer believed otherwise.
Stromer was not to find early mammals on his expedition, though, but something completely different; he was about to make a huge discovery: Egypt's only known dinosaurs.
Stromer's 1910 journals of his days at Wadi el Natrun reveal that he worked all through the day, hiking for miles, climbing hills, and hammering pieces of rock from outcroppings throughout the valley. Though he worked hard, almost tirelessly, the weeks he spent at Wadi el Natrun were largely unsuccessful. He found endless sharks' teeth, broken shells of ancient turtles, and the occasional jaw of a prehistoric crocodile, but no mammals. By December, he returned to Cairo, disappointed.
Markgraf, however, was instructed to stay behind and continue the search. Stromer was delighted when, a week or so later, Markgraf presented to their employer the skull of a small monkey. It was named after Markgraf: Libypithecus markgrafi.
The second stage of the expedition took them to a location far up the Nile in December. There was no more luck there than there had been in Wade el Natrun.
To complicate matters, Markgraf had fallen ill again and would not be able to accompany Stromer on the third and most vital part of the expedition: the part that would take them to Bahariya Oasis. Stromer knew little Arabic and was completely unfamiliar with the remote reaches of Egypt's Western Desert. He suddenly felt bereft and abandoned, and his expedition was threatened.
Stromer did eventually find a dragoman who could function as a guide and translator, however, to make things easier. The permits to explore the Western Desert were not so easily obtained.
On 3 January 1911, he and the rest of his crew boarded a train and set off for the Western Desert. The train line ended at the southern edge of the Bahariya Oasis. They spent the night in a simple canvas tent, eating a simple dinner of chicken and rice. By noon the next day, they were deep in the desert and the expedition to Bahariya was finally beginning.
The caravan was significantly slowed as they had to find grazing areas, a rarity in the desert, for the camels because one of the team members had skimped on buying fodder for the animals. Stromer could do nothing but fume.
The sunlight was so bright reflecting off of the white rocks that Stromer often had to wear his prescription sunglasses, and the air was so cold in the middle of winter that he more often than not walked beside the camels instead of riding, simply to generate some heat to stay warm.
Finally, after more than a week of marching, they arrived at their destination on 11 January 1911. Stromer thought that the rock in the valley came from the Eocene Epoch, where he would have found the skeletons of mammals, because he, like most other scientists of the time, believed the Eocene Epoch to be just a few million years before, and the end of the Cretaceous to be just a couple of million years earlier than that.
He was off by tens of millions of years; Ernst Stromer had walked right into the age of the dinosaurs.
The expedition team lived in a small town called Mandisha for the length of their stay. The day after Stromer's arrival, his plans to start exploring were stopped by worsening weather that included, of all things that could have hindered them in the desert, rain. He commenced to plan exploring the morning after, but around midnight a huge sandstorm blew into Mandisha that continued to rage on through the next day, forcing everyone to stay in the tent.
Finally, on 14 January, the weather eased and the expedition was able to begin. That first day, Stromer was able to find little more than a fossilized shark vertebrae, fish teeth, and some petrified wood, but his enthusiasm was unhindered—on 18 January, his patience finally began to pay off—while walking around the south flank of el Diest he suddenly found "three large bones which I attempt to excavate and photograph. The upper extremity is heavily weathered and incomplete [but] measures 110 cm long and 15 cm thick. The second and better one underneath is probably a femur [thighbone] and is wholly 95 cm long and, in the middle, also 15 cm thick. The third is too deep in the ground and will require too much time to recover." He also discovered that morning an ischium (one of the pelvic bones of a dinosaur), another vertebrae with "a convex end," and what he described as "a gigantic claw". He cut up his mosquito netting and soaked them in a flour and water paste, covering the two larger bones in this wrapping.
Despite the huge success in el Dist, he still moved the entire team to the area near Gebel Hammad the next day. Several dinosaur, fish, and shark bones were found there, but after little more was recovered, they packed up and, two days later, left again—this time for the village of Ghauraq.
On 18 February 1911, Stromer began his long trip back to Germany. Over the next few years, he would announce a series of surprising and unique finds of dinosaurs from the Bahariya Oasis, which should have made him one of the most famous paleontologists of his era; however, fame was elusive; he would be remembered for what he had lost rather than what he had found.
In 1944, towards the end of World War II, the vast majority of Stromer's fossil collection—including the only known (though incomplete) skeletons of Spinosaurus and Aegyptosaurus—was destroyed when the museum in which it was held in Munich was bombed by the Allied Royal Air Force during a raid.