Albert Oppel

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(b, Hohenheim, Wurttemberg, Germany, 19 December 1831; d. Munich, Germany, 22 December 1865)

paleontology, biostratigraphy.

Oppel was the son of a professor at the agricultural college in Hohenheim, near Stuttgart. He spent most of his school years in Stuttgart, where he was introduced to geology and mineralogy by J. G. von Kurr. In 1851 he entered the University of Tübingen, where he became one of Quensledt’s most talented students. Oppel was a passionate and gifted collector, and even as a student he amassed a first-rate collection of fossils of the Württemberg Jurassic.

Oppel received his doctorate in 1853 with the dissertation “Über den Mittleren Lias in Schwaben.” In the following years he visited the Jurassic exposures in Germany, France, England, and Switzerland and met the most important investigators of the Jurassic in these countries. He formed a particularly close friendship with d’Orbigny in Paris. In 1858 he became an assistant to Andreas Wagner at the Bavarian State Paleontological Collection in Munich. Oppel became an assistant professor there in 1860 and, following Wagner’s death in 1861, was appointed full professor of paleontology and curator of the paleontological collections at the University of Munich—posts he held until his death. In 1861 he married Anna Herbort, a friend of his sister; they had two children. Their younger child died at the beginning of December 1865. Soon afterward Oppel fell ill and died of typhoid fever at the age of thirty-four.

With his dissertation Oppel laid the foundation for his scientific lifework, the investigation of the Jurassic system. His fundamental work was Die Juraformation Englands, Frankreichs unci des südwestlichen Deutschlands (1856-1858). Previously the Jurassic deposits of these countries had been subdivided according to local, and frequently lithological, features. Oppel showed, however, that a subdivision may be based solely on paleontological content—that is, on certain faunal species or assemblages—even when the lithological character of the sediments involved is quite varied. By means of fossils he divided the Jurassic formation into thirty-three sections, which he called zones. Each zone was characterized by a number of typical animal species, mostly ammonites. Thus the Jurassic deposits of western Europe were correlated independently of their lithology.

Like d’Orbigny, whose methodology he followed, Oppel based his stratigraphic division on the acceptance of sharply delineated faunal assemblages or faunal species that suddenly appear and disappear. This approach presupposed Linnaeus’ concept of the immutability of species and Cuvier’s catastrophism. When Darwin’s work on the origin of species appeared in 1859, Oppel experienced a great inner conflict. He accepted the theory of evolution only hesitatingly, in the last years of his life. Nevertheless, his concept of the zone is an indispensable resource of modern biostratigraphy, despite the altered theoretical foundations.

Following the appearance of his comparative studies on the Jurassic, Oppel began publishing Paläonlogische Mittheilungen at Munich. The first five essays, which he himself wrote, dealt chiefly with the invertebrates of the Jurassic and demonstrated his taxonomic acuity. The nearness of the Alps directed his attention to problems of Alpine Jurassic stratigraphy, and in his last work (1865) he distinguished the Tithonian stage. In this designation he included the boundary layers between the Jurassic and Cretaceous in the Alpine and transalpine regions and characterized them through the ammonites they contained. Oppel devoted much time and energy to his collections, and he enriched them to an extraordinary degree; further expanded by his successor Zittel, they became world famous.


I. Original Works. Oppel’s writings include Die Juraformation Englands. Frankreichs und des südwestlichen Deutschlands (Stuttgart, 1856-1858); Paläontologische Mittheilungen.… 5 pts. (Stuttgart, 1862 1865); and “Dietithonische Etage,” in Zeitschrift der Deutschen geologischen Gesellschaft,17 (1865), 535-558.

II.Secondary Literature. See F. von Hochstetter, “Zur Erinnerung an Dr. Albert Oppel,” in Jahrbuch der Geologischren Rekhsanstalt,16 (1866), 59-67; J. G. von Kurr, “Nekrolog des Professor Dr. Albert Oppel” in Jahreshefte des Vereins für vaterländische Naturkunde in Württemberg,23 (1867), 26-30; K. Lambrecht and W. and Quenstedt, “Palaeontologi. Caialogus bio- bibliographicus,” inFossilium caialogus,2, pt. 72 (1938), 320; and the obituaries by K. F. P. von Martius, inSitzungsherichte der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu München,1 (1866), 380-386, with bibliography;W. W. Smyth, in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London,23 (1867), “Proceedings,” 48-49; and H. Woodward, inGeological Magazine,3 (1866), 95-96, with bibliography.

Heinz Tobien

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Oppel, Albert (1831–65) A German geologist and palaeontologist, Oppel made extensive studies of the Jurassic rocks of Europe. He devised a scheme to divide geologic formations into zones, each based on the period of existence of a single organic species, later to be termed ‘index fossils’. See OPPEL ZONE.