Albert Heim

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Heim, Albert

(b. Zurich, Switzerland, 12 April 1849; d. Zurich, 30 August 1937)


From his father, a merchant, Heim gained his lifelong interest in mountain scenery, particularly as a result of a walking tour in 1865. From his mother he inherited his talent for drawing, which was a powerful vehicle for describing the complex Alpine geological structures he studied throughout his life. Concentrating on scientific subjects, he studied at the University of Zurich and then at the Zurich Institute of Technology, from which he graduated in 1869 with a dissertation on glaciers. This was his first publication, and between 1870 and 1937 he published more than 130 major articles and a dozen books and atlases, including the very influential, two-volume Untersuchungen über der Mechanismus der Gebirgsbildung im Anschluss an die geologische Monographie der Tödi-Windgällengruppe (1878) and the monumental, two-volume Geologie der Schweiz (1916–1922). The most powerful influence on his life was provided by his teacher at the Institute of Technology, Arnold Escher von der Linth, the father of Alpine geology. In 1841 Escher had interpreted the complex structure of the Glarus, south of the Wallensee, as involving colossal overfolding that caused a widespread inversion of the sedimentary sequence. Later work has shown that this is a huge nappe structure thrust from the south, but its early interpretation was hampered by the erosional removal of the thinned middle limb of the fold and by the synclinal character of its leading (northern) edge. Escher interpreted this as a double fold involving two overfolds of some 15 kilometers’ displacement from the north and from the south toward an unfolded center. In reality this “center” was the spot where part of the huge single overfold had been removed by erosion, the southern “fold” being the root of the nappe and the northern “fold” the unrooted apex of the fold isolated by erosion.

After graduation Heim made geological excursions to Germany and Italy, where he made a special study of Vesuvius during its eruption of 1872. In the same year Escher died, and in 1873 Heim succeeded him as professor of geology at the Zurich Institute of Technology, also occupying the same chair at the University of Zurich from 1875. His fieldwork was concentrated in the region made famous by Escher; and between 1871 and 1885 he worked on the mapping and description of the key sheet 14 (1: 100,000; Tödi-Windgällengruppe) for the Swiss Geological Commission, of which he became a member in 1888 and president in 1894. In 1878 he published Mechanismus der Gebirgsbildung, dedicated to Escher and containing not only the full description of the Glarus double fold which Escher had never given but also a superbly illustrated treatment of Alpine structures and mountain-building dynamics which almost immediately became the authoritative work on Alpine tectonics. Three years before the publication of the Mechanismus Heim married Marie Vögthin just after she became the first woman in Switzerland to be awarded a medical degree. The couple had two children.

Heim was an excellent teacher, mainly because his lectures on tectonics, mountain geology, and the geology of Switzerland were firmly based on his own field observations, mapping, and drawings. Although between 1881 and 1901, as head of the scientific section of the Zurich Institute of Technology he was much involved in administration, his field excursions and lectures made him extremely popular with his students. In 1885 Heim published his Handbuch der Gletscherkunde; in 1888 Die Dislokationen der Erdrinde, written with Emmanuel de Margerie, which formed the basis of many subsequent textbooks; in 1891 Geologie der Alpen zwischen Reuss und Rhein (a monograph describing the geological sheet 14 published six years earlier); and in 1894, with Karl Schmidt, the Geological Map of Switzerland on a scale of 1:500,000. This map was first exhibited at the International Geological Congress at Zurich and was stolen twice on the first day.

Heim was the first genuine European geological artist; his talent lay in his power to describe accurately the most complex geological structures and to illustrate them with brilliant drawings, cross sections, and models. It is ironic that, although the correct interpretation of the Glarus structure was not made by Heim, it came from a geologist who had never visited the region and knew it only from Heim’s descriptions and illustrations. Even after the publication of the Mechanismus the difficulties facing the double-fold theory of the Glarus remained, particularly the possible erosional origin of the center of the fold and the necessity of postulating that the northern part of the double fold had been thrust from the north, whereas every other fold in the region was clearly thrust from the south. In 1884 Marcel Bertrand, after studying Heim’s work and smaller-scale structures in the Belgian coalfield, proposed that the Glarus was a single overfold involving a northward displacement of at least 35 kilometers. In his 1891 monograph Heim virtually ignored Bertrand’s theory and was still opposed to the idea when it was supported by Eduard Suess after a visit to the region in 1892. In the following year H. Schardt began the revolution in Alpine tectonics foreshadowed by Bertrand, by showing the reality of both superimposed, far-traveled thrust masses of northward displacement and of rootless thrust masses isolated by erosion. From this time Heim’s position was constantly undermined; and when his student M. Lugeon published his synthesis of Alpine structure in 1902, it contained a letter from Heim supporting Bertrand’s interpretation of the Glarus.

Heim continued with his geological mapping and, assisted by his son Arnold, produced Geologie des Säntisgebirges in 1905, together with a geological map of Säntis at 1:25,000. In 1910 this was followed by his geological map of the Glarner Alps at 1: 50,000, also done with his son. After a deterioration of his health in 1905, Heim began to relinquish some of his teaching duties in 1908, resigning his chairs of geology three years later. He then devoted himself to the work of the Swiss Geological Commission, of which he was president until 1926, and was particularly instrumental in the completion of the 1: 100,000 geological map of Switzerland. Between 1916 and 1922 Heim published his massive Geologie der Schweiz, which was more than a mere synthesis of the huge amount of geological work then being conducted in the Alps. With magnificently detailed diagrams he reconstructed the thicknesses and facies variations in the Alpine decken, speculated on the manner of geosynclinal deformation, showed how the rising Alpine folds furnished clastics to the northern flank of the range, identified involuted nappes, attempted to calculate the crustal shortening represented by folded structures, and produced the finest account of a national geology. Although Heim’s preoccupation was with Alpine tectonics, he published on a variety of subjects including weathering, springs, landslides, the inability of glaciers to erode deep lake basins, the conditions to be expected during the drilling of the Simplon Tunnel, and Alpine erosional forms. His last major work, “Bergsturz und Menschenleben” (Vierteljahrsschrift der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Zurich [1932]), showed his interests in conservation and the relations between man and nature.

In 1931 Heim became ill with anemia. Nevertheless he continued his prolific publication until his death six years later. He was associated with more than fifty learned societies and held honorary degrees from Bern, Oxford, and Zurich.


An extensive biography and complete bibliography of Heim’s work is given by P. Arbenz in Verhandlungen der Schweizerischen naturforschenden Gesellschaft, 118 (1937), 330–353. An English obituary is E. B. Bailey, in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society of London, 7 , no. 2 (1939), 471–474; see also M. L. Lugeon, “Memorial to Albert Heim,” in Proceedings of the Geological Society of America for 1937 (1938), pp. 169–172, with portrait. E. B. Bailey, Tectonic Essays: Mainly Alpine (Oxford, 1935), provides a clear account of Heim’s role in Alpine research.

R. J. Chorley

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Heim, Albert (1849–1937) A Swiss alpine geologist, Heim did important work concerned with the theory of mountain building, and on the formation of overthrusts and nappes in the Alps. He supported the idea of a contracting Earth. He also studied the mechanics of rock deformation, proposing that rocks can deform plastically under pressure and that the same pressure causes metamorphism.