Drygalski, Erich von

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Drygalski, Erich von

(b. Königsberg, Eastern Prussia [now Kaliningrad, U.S.S.R.], 9 February 1865; d. Munich, Germany, 10 January 1949)


At the age of seventeen Drygalski began to study mathematics and physics in Königsberg but soon went to Bonn in order to attend the lectures of Ferdinand von Richthofen, whom he followed in 1883 to Leipzig and in 1886 to Berlin. In 1887, while an assistant at the Geodetic Institute in Potsdam, he received his doctorate after completion of a dissertation in geophysics, but Richthofen’s strong scientific and personal influence led him to become a geographer. Drygalski qualified as lecturer in geography and geophysics at the University of Berlin in 1898 and became a professor in 1899. In 1906 he accepted a call to the newly established chair of geography at the University of Munich, which he made highly regarded and held until his retirement in 1935.

Ice and oceans figured prominently in Drygalski’s lifework. In the summer of 1891 and in 1892–1893 he led the preliminary and main expeditions of the Berlin Geographical Society to western Greenland. This expedition established Drygalski’s international reputation. The following years were dedicated to the painstaking preparation of the first German expedition to the South Pole, which was tirelessly advocated and supported by Georg von Neumayer. It was carried out under Drygalski’s direction in 1901–1903 on the polar ship Gauss. It had little outward publicity in comparison with other South Pole expeditions because of the considerable difficulties of the area allotted to it by international agreement. Of great value, however, were the scientific data, a wealth of scrupulously presented observations of the most varied scientific matters that brought the name “Antarctic University” to the Gauss expedition and gave it the highest rank among the South Pole explorations of the “classical” period. Drygalski henceforth was classed among the leading authorities in the fields of polar and oceanic exploration.

Although the expedition’s report appeared soon after its return (1904), the scientific conclusions were fully developed only after almost thirty years of indefatigable labor by Drygalski and his co-workers.

Drygalski was a member of many academies, honorary member of numerous geographical societies, and recipient of their medals. In 1944 the Munich Geographical Society, which he had headed for twenty-nine years, established the Erich von Drygalski Medal in his honor.

Drygalski was also an excellent teacher. Thousands of students came to Munich to attend his stimulating classes, which were never confined to his special fields but dealt with many areas of geography, even those in which he had little interest. He emphasized regional geography, especially that of Asia, North America, and Germany. Eighty-four dissertations were written under his guidance; it is characteristic that he did not impose a single one of the subjects, and that none of them was designed to confirm or develop his own views. This absolute scientific freedom was highly appreciated by Drygalski’s students and was the reason that the Festschrift for his sixtieth birthday was entitled Freie Wege vergleichender Erdkunde (1925).


I. Original Works, A complete list of Drygalski’s writings may be compiled from the following sources: for 1885–1924, his Festschrift, Freie Wege vergleichender Erdkunde, pp. 374–386; for 1925–1934, Zeitschrift für Geopolitik, 12 (1935), 127–132; and for 1935–1949, Die Erde. Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, 1 (1949/1950), 69–72.

Among his works are Grönland-Expedition der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin 1891–1893, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1897); Zum Kontinent des eisigen Südens (Berlin, 1904); Deutsche Südpolar-Expedition 1901–1903, 20 vols. text and 2 vols. maps (Berlin-Leipzig, 1905–1931); and “Gletscherkunde,” in Enzyklopädie der Erdkunde, VIII (Vienna, 1942), written with Fritz Machatschek.

II. Secondary Literature. The Festschrift issued for Drygalski’s sixtieth birthday was L. Distel and E. Fels, eds., Freie Wege vergleichender Erdkunde (Munich, 1925). Obituaries are N. Greutzburg, in Erdkunde. 3 (1949). 65–68; H. Fehn, in Berichte zur deutschen Landeskunde, 8 (1950), 46–48; E. Fels. in Forschungen und Fortschritte, 25 (1949), 190–191, and Die Erde. Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, 1 (1949/1950), 66–72; O. Jessen. in Geographische Rundschau, 1 (1949), 116–117, and Jahrbuch der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (1949/1950), pp. 133–136; W. L. G. Joerg, in Geographical Review, 40 (1950), 489–491; W. Meinardus, in Petermanns geographische Mitteilungen, 93 (1949), 177–180; and S. Passarge, in Mitteilungen der Geographischen Gesellschaft in München, 35 (1949/1950). 105–107.

Edwin Fels