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Hump-Day History: Karl Alfred von Zittel and his History of Geology and Paleontology June 27, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
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Karl Alfred von Zittel ( September 25, 1839January 5, 1904) was a German paleontologist.  Henry Fairfield Osborn, the geologist, zoologist, and eugenicist, who authored, in 1936 the two volume, The Proboscidea: A Monograph of the Discovery, Evolution, Migration and Extinction of the Mastodonts and Elephants of the World, as well as Man Rises to Parnassus, eulogized von Zittel as one of the most “distinguished advocates of paleontology.” It was no exaggeration, according to Osborn, to say that “he did more for the promotion and diffusion of paleontology than any other single man who lived during the nineteenth century.”

Von Zittel, “while not a genius”, nonetheless possessed “untiring industry” as well as “critical capacity” ( Science, N. S., Vol. XIX. ) What then were von Zittel’s achievements?  First among them was the multi-volume Handbuch der Palaeontologie, issued between 1876 and 1890.  While the progress of paleontology in the nineteenth century was “prodigious,” according to Osborn, it was nonetheless, “scattered through thousands of monographs and special papers,” a “hopeless labyrinth to the student.” Such was the state of knowledge, detail without system, that it was impossible for even the expert “to gain a perspective view of the whole subject.”  Von Zittel’s Handbuch der Palaeontologie was a feat of organization and collection.  Added to this textual achievement was von Zittel’s apparently fantastic collection of natural historical specimens which he assembled at Alte Akademie of Munich.  This collection, assembled from all over the world, illustrated the course of the  ” evolution of plants and of invertebrate and vertebrate animals.”

It was small wonder that Munich accordingly became “the Mecca of paleontologists, young and old.”  Such community was fostered by von  Zittel due in large part to his “exceptionally charming and magnetic personality.”  He  was also exceptionally generous with both his time and his natural historical specimens.  Von Zittel’s legacy and fame were secure as he could count among his students “all the younger American, most of the German, and many of the younger French and Austrian paleontologists.” (more…)