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Walther, Johannes


(b. Neustadt-Orla, Germany, 20 July 1860; d. Hofgastein, Germany, 4 May 1937)


Walther was the son of Kuno Walther, an evangelical clergyman, and his wife, Marianne Louise Schwabe Walther. He was educated in Dermbach-Rhön and in Eisenach. In 1879 he entered the University of Jena, where he studied biology and anatomy with E. A. Strasburger, Ernst Stahl, and Oscar and Richard Hertwig. His studies were much influenced by Ernst Haeckel. In 1882 he received the doctorate with a dissertation titled “Die Entwicklung der Deckknochen am Kopfskelett des Hechtes.” He then studied geology at the universities of Leipzig (with Hermann Credner and Ferdinand Zirkel) and Munich (with Wilhelm von Gümbel and Karl von Zittel). One of his mentors was Ferdinand von Richthofen. In 1886 Walther qualified as Privatdozent at Jena, where he was named Ernst Haeckel professor of geology and paleontology (1894). The nomination for the chair of geology and paleontology at the University of Halle followed in 1906. He retired in 1929 and spent his last years in Halle. His ashes were buried in the Walther family vault at Eisenach (Thuringia).

Walther, who belonged to the tradition of scientific travelers, created the bases of his biofacial and sedimentological investigations during his numerous journeys. During his first stay at the Zoological Station of Naples in 1883, he studied the habits of sea creatures by examining the sediments of their habitats. He realized the importance of observing the origin of recent sediments in order to understand fossil rocks. Walther continued his studies of recent biotopes in the Bay of Naples (1885), in southern Sweden (1886), on the shores of the Red Sea (1887), and on the coasts of Ceylon (1888–1889). These and other observations, including the results of the Challenger expedition (which he studied at Edinburgh in 1888), prepared him to write his books Allgemeine Meereskunde (1893) and Einleitung in die Geologie als historische Wissenschaft (1893–1894).

Walther was one of the founders of dynamic sedimentology, which he called lithogenesis. As author of the law of correlation of facies, he was one of the first geologists to present a thorough discussion of the concept of facies. He also formulated the modern concept of diagenesis and was one of the founders of paleoecology. Walther claimed that the most satisfying explanations of the genesis of ancient phenomena were analogies to modern geological processes, calling this actualistic assertion the ontological method. He wrote: “I persist in trying to investigate the events of the past through modern phenomena. From existence we explain genesis” (Einleitung, p. xii). His synthesis of marine ecology contained a clearly enunciated law of correlation of biotopes, a parallel to the law of correlation of facies. These laws mean that only those biotopes, facies, or sediments can follow each other in time which adjoin one another in space at the present time.

Walther was also one of the first geologists to study fossil deserts, having become interested in them through Georg Schweinfurth, with whom he traversed the Nubian Desert in 1887. Later, Walther traveled in the arid regions of Arizona and southern California (1891), the Central Asian deserts of Turkestan (1897), the Libyan Desert (1911), and the Western Australian Desert (1914). He described his experiences and observations in, for example, Das Gesetz der Wüstenbildung in Gegenwart und Vorzeit (1900).

Although Walther was artistically talented and an excellent orator, his scientific publications were not in the style of his time and thus were little known abroad. He was highly esteemed by the public, however, often lecturing on his numerous expeditions. He was able to present facts clearly and convincingly, and he was an excellent teacher. He was actively involved in training teachers of geology and wrote popular books, including Geologie Deutschlands (1910), Geologie der Heimat (1918), and Das deutsche Landschaftsbild im Wandel der Zeiten (1933). Walther also dealt with the scientific work of Geothe, editing the monograph Goethe als Seher und Erforscher der Natur (1930). His last publication was Mediterranis: Geobiologische Untersuchungen über Gestaltung und Besiedlung des mediterranen Lebensraumes (1936).

Walther was honored in his day, although his name is not well known to later generations of stratigraphers and sedimentologists. He became a member of the Leopoldina in 1892, a corresponding fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1896, a member of the Royal Society of Scientists of Moscow in 1897, an honorary member of the Hungarian Geographical Society in 1922, and an honorary member of the Geological Society of Vienna in 1923. He received honorary doctorates from the University of Melbourne in 1914 and from the Medical Faculty of the University of Halle in 1925. In 1924 he was elected president of the Leopoldina.


I. Original Works. Allgemeine Meereskunde (Jena, 1893); Einleitung in die Geologie als historische Wissenschaft, 3 vols. (Jena, 1893–1894); Das Gesetz der Wüstenbildung in Gegenwart und Vorzeit (Berlin, 1900; 4th ed., Leipzig, 1924); Geologie Deutschlands: Eine Einführung in die erklärende Landschaftskunde für Lehrende und Lernende (Leipzig, 1910; 4th ed., 1923); Geologie der Heimat: Grundlinien geologischer Anschauung (Leipzig, 1918; 3rd ed., 1926); Bau und Bildung der Erde. Ein Grundriss der Geologie und ihre Anwendung im heimatkundlichen Unterricht (Leipzig, 1925); Allgemeine Paläontologie, Geologische Fragen in biologischer Betrachtung (Berlin, 1919; 2nd ed., Berlin, 1927); as editor, Goethe als Seher und Erforscher der Natur (Halle, 1930); Das deutsche Landschaftsbild im Wandel der Zeiten: Eine Einführung in die Geologie Deutschlands (Lepzig, 1933); and Mediterranis: Geobiologische Untersuchungen über Gestaltung und Besiedlung des mediterranen Lebensraumes (Gotha, 1936).

II. Secondary Literature. K. Beurlen, “Die Bedeutung der organischen Entwicklung für die Erdgeschichte,” in Nova acta Leopoldina, 5 (1938), 369–391; K. von Bülow, “Johannes Walther, der Begrunder der Biogeologie,” in Berichte der geologischen Gesellschaft der DDR, 6 (1962), 373–382, with portrait and bibliography; E. Grumbt, “Johannes Walther, ein Begründer der modernen Sedimentforschung,” in Zeitschrift für geologische Wissenschaften, 3 (1975), 1255–1263; Gerard V. Middleton, “Johannes Walther’s Law of the Correlation of Facies,” in Geological Society of America, Bulletin, 84 (1973), 979–988; E. C. Quereau, “Review of Einleitung in die Geologie als historische Wissenschaft by Johannes Walther,” in Journal of Geology, 2 (1894), 856–860; I. Seibold, “Anfänge der deutschen Meeresgeologie: Johannes Walther zum Gedächtnis,” in Zeitschrift der geologischen Gesellschaft, 138 (1987), 1–12; G. 1. Sokratov, “Histoire de la loi dite de Walther: Sur la formation des structures litées des couches sédimentaires,” in Doklady Akademü nauk SSSR, 52 (1948), 517–519; B. P. Twenhofel, “Memorial to Johannes Walther,” in Proceedings of the Geological Society of America, 1937 (1938), 221–230, with bibliography; B. P. Vyssotzki, logannes Val’ter i ego rol’ v razvitü geologü (Johannes Walther and his role in the progress of geology; Moscow, 1965); and J. Weigelt, “Johannes Walther,” in Zeitschrift der deutschen geologischen Gesellschaft, 89 (1937), 645–656, with portrait and bibliography; “Zum Tode von Johannes Walther,” in Geologie der Meere und Binnengewässer, 2 (1938), 323–333, with bibliography; and “Dem Andenken an Johannes Walther,” in Jahrbuch des Halleschen Verbandes für die Erforschung der mitteldeutschen Bodenschätze und ihrer Verwertung, 16 (1938), 7–12, with portrait and bibliography.

M. Schwab

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Walther, Johannes (1860-1937)

Walther, Johannes (1860-1937)

German geologist

Johannes Walther (18601937) was instrumental in the development of stratigraphy . Walther's two-volume work, Modern Lithogenesis, published in 1883 and 1884 was a pioneering work in classical sedimentary analysis.

Walther asserted that proper analysis of sedimentary facies could reveal important clues regarding the formation and movement of rock . Sedimentary facies are layers within a particular formation that are different in sedimentary history from surrounding layers within the same area . Facies may show vertical differentiation, lateral differentiation, or both characteristic differences. The differentiation defining a facies may be either lithological or paleontological.

Walther advanced the ontological method in the analysis of facies stratigraphy. Walther was an avid naturalist, devoted to fieldwork. His data reflected a passion for linking current observation to geologic history.

Near the turn of the century, Walther advanced what is now known as the Walther Facies Rule. Because sedimentary facies show vertical sequence superposition , a vertical progression of facies will reflect lateral facies changes. Sedimentary layers or rocks essentially preserve the environment of their deposition. These depositional environments change and the old depositional layers shift laterally and may transgress (become superimposed) on surrounding deposits. Regardless, these chronologically transgressive layers will show similar vertical and lateral succession. Walther's rule thus related lateral facies changes to vertical changes (vertical succession). Walther's rule provided a powerful explanation that facies and surrounding deposits change and shift laterally as Earth's surface undergoes change and that lithostratigraphy often reflected layers and formations that can not always be accurately used to date the formations (e.g., where unconformities exist). In essence, Walther's rule placed a limit on lithostratigraphic analysis and placed additional reliance upon paleontological analysis of the fossil record .

Walther's work was not immediately put to wide use, and Walther suffered the same isolation experienced by many German scientists in an early twentieth century and post World War I environment often hostile to Germany and German scientists. Ultimately Walther's work was appreciated for its wealth of data regarding sedimentary processes and sedimentary facies.

Walther's advancement of facies analysis ultimately proved highly useful in the prediction of formations that might contain petroleum , specific minerals, or ores of economic value.

Walther was also an avid and accomplished painter of natural scenes.

See also Dating methods; Marine transgression and marine regression; Petroleum detection; Sedimentary rocks; Sedimentation

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