Abel, Othenio

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Abel, Othenio

(b. Vienna, Austria, 20 June 1875: d. Pichl am Mondsee, Austria, 4 July 1946)

paleontology, paleobiology.

Abel’s greatest scientific achievement, the founding of paleobiology, undoubtedly grew out of his background. For several generations his ancestors on his father’s side had been gardeners. His grandfather had taken his examination in botany under Nicolaus Jaquin and had received summa cum eminentia; his father was a teacher at the horticulture school and Dozent at the Institute of Agriculture in Vienna.

As a sixteen-year-old Gymnasium student Abel eagerly collected fossils. To please his parents, however, he continued his education at the Faculty of Law of the University of Vienna. Soon, though, he devoted more time to the natural sciences, especially botany: his first publications were several papers on orchids.

In 1898, while still a student, Abel became an assistant at the Geological Institute of the University of Vienna under Eduard Suess. He took his major examination in geology and paleontology in 1899 and received the Ph.D. Abel then attended the school of mining in Leoben for a short while, and in 1900 he accepted a position as Mitarbeiter at the Imperial-Royal Geological State Institute in Vienna, where he was active until 1907. At the very beginning of this period he published the result of his studies on Cetacea, “Untersuchungen über die fossilen Platanistiden des wiener Beckens,” which he had begun while still a student. This paper brought him an invitation to investigate the fossil whales of Belgium. From 1900 on, Abel was collaborateur étranger of the Royal Museum of Natural History of Belgium, and several times he traveled to that country. There he met Louis Dollo, who became his teacher of paleontology and his friend. Abel was stimulated by Dollo’s teachings, as well as by the writings of Vladimir Kovalevsky and Henry Fairfield Osborn, which were influential in the founding of paleobiology.

In 1901 Abel was appointed Privatdozent in paleontology at the University of Vienna; in 1907, associate professor; and in 1912, full professor. He became professor of paleobiology and director of the paleo-biology department, later the Paleobiological Institute of the university, in 1917.

Abel’s important work Grundzüge der Paläobiologie der Wirbeltiere appeared in 1912, Die vorzeitlichen Saugetiere in 1914, and Paläobiologie der Cephalopoden in 1916. By then he had published over 100 papers. The stream of writings continued. Die Stämme der Wirbeltiere (1919) was followed by Lehrbuch der Paläozoologie (1920), Lebensbilder aus der Tierwell der Vorzeit (1922), and Geschichte und Methode der Rekonstruktion vorzeitlicher Wirbeltiere (1925). Many shorter works were published as well. During this period Abel was in charge of extensive paleozoological excavations in the Drachenhöhle near Mixnitz, Styria; he had previously (1912) undertaken similar excavations at Pikermi, Greece.

In 1911 Abel was awarded the Bigsby Medal of the Geological Society of London; in 1922, the Elliot Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington and the Rainer Medal of the Zoological—Botanical Society of Vienna. He became president of the Paleontological Society in 1921, and was subsequently a member or an honorary member of numerous scientific academies and learned societies, as well as honorary doctor of the universities of Cape Town and Athens. He was also dean (1927/1928) and rector (1932/1933) of the University of Vienna.

Abel had been at the University of Vienna for twenty-eight years and had published more than 250 papers when, in 1935, he accepted a post at the University of Göttingen. He spent five years at Göttingen, amassing new collections and turning his attention to newer subdivisions of paleontology that had not yet been extensively investigated. In 1940 he retired and returned to Austria, where, in Salzburg, he founded a short-lived institute for biological natural history. Despite this failure, he continued his scientific activities until very shortly before his death.


I. Original Works. Among the most important of Abel’s 275 publications are Grundzüge der Paläobiologie der Wirbeltiere (Stuttgart, 1912); Die vorzeitlichen Säugetiere (Jena, 1914); Paläobiologie der Cephalopoden (Jena. 1916); Die Stämme der Wirbeltiere (Berlin–Leipzig, 1919); Lehrbuch der Paläozoologie (Jean, 1920); Lebensbilder aus der Tierwelt der Vorzeit (Jean, 1922): Eroberungszüge der Wirbeltiere in die Meere der Vorziet (Jean.1924); Geschichte und Methode der Rekonstruktion vorzeitlicher Wirebeltiere (Jena, 1925); Amerikafahrt (Jean, 1926); Paläobiologie und Stammesgeschichte (Jean, 1929); Die Drachenhöhle bei Mixnitz in Steiermark, 3 vols. (Vienna, 1931); Die Stellung des Menschen im Rahmen der Wirebeltiere (Jena, 1931); and Vorzeitliche Lebensspuren (Jena, 1935).

In 1928 Abel founded the journal Palaeobiologica, and most of his shorter papers appeared in it.

II. Secondary Literature. Of several obituary notices giving information on Abel’s life and works, the most extensive one is written by his son-in-law, Kurt Ehrenberg; “Othenio Abel, sein Werden und Wirken.” in Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Paläontologie, Mitteilungshefte no. 11/12 (1949), 325–328. See also E. Fischer, “Othenio Abel 1875–1946,” in Die Naturwissenschaften, 6 , no.33 (1946); and K. Leuchs, “Othenio Abel,” in Almanach der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1947 (Vienna. 1948).

An oil portrait of Abel by P. F. Gsur, painted in 1933, is in the possession of the University of Vienna.

Hans BaumgÄrtel