Abich, Otto Hermann Wilhelm

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Abich, Otto Hermann Wilhelm

(b. Berlin, Germany, 11 December 1806; d. Vienna, Austria, 1 July 1886)


Abich’s interest in natural science and travel was formed under the influence of his father, Wilhelm, an official in the Department of Mines; and two uncles, Martin Klaproth, a chemist, and Julius Klaproth, an ethnographer, orientalist, traveler, and expert on the Caucasian peoples.

He began his higher education at the Faculty of Law of Heidelberg University but later transferred to the department of physics and mathematics at the University of Berlin, from which he graduated in 1831. Having defended a dissertation on the minerals of the spinel group, he received the ph. D. At Heidelberg, Abich’s teachers included Hegel, Humboldt, and Buch. On Buch’s advice, Abich traveled to Italy, where he took great interest in the problems of recent volcanicity and published a series of articles that brought him widespread fame.

Shortly thereafter Abich was invited to become extraordinary professor of mineralogy at the university of Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonian S.S.R.), and in 1843 he moved to Russia. As an outstanding expert on volcanic phenomena, he was immediately sent to Transcaucasia in order to determine the causes of the catastrophic earthquake that had destroyed part of the mountain peak Great Ararat in 1840. Abich was captivated by the Caucasus, and for almost thirty-five years he studied this complex, mountainous country. His fundamental papers on the geology of the region, which previously had been totally ignored, made him world famous.

In 1853 the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg elected Abich to membership, and in 1866 he was elevated to honorary membership. Since Abich was continuously involved in work far from Dorpat, it became necessary for him to resign his post there. He was then assigned to the headquarters of the Corps of Mining Engineers and was detailed to the command of the viceregent of the Caucasus. Spending the greater part of his time in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Abich went to St. Petersburg or western Europe only to work on the specimens he collected or to publish important monographs. During one such trip in the late 1850’s he met and married Adelaide Hess, daughter of the renowned chemist Hermann Heinrich Hess.

Abich was a proponent of the volcanistic theory that assigned the decisive role in geologic processes to hypogene forces and to magma. In the first years of his career Abich’s interests were concentrated on mineralogy and petrography. In his paper on spinels he was the first to establish that a characteristic of this group is the constancy of a crystallographic form that is preserved regardless of the wide range of isomorphous replacements. While conducting his petrographic investigations, Abich uncovered the important role of feldspar in the composition of igneous rocks.

In the years that followed, Abich continued his intensive study of various Caucasian magmatic formations, conducting chemical investigations simultaneously with his mineralogic-petrographic analysis. Abich’s work in the Caucasus demanded that he answer many stratigraphic questions. The frequent change of facies and the complexity of the tectonics seriously hampered investigation, and Abich therefore paid serious attention to the collecting of fossils, which he determined himself. He studied the fauna of the whole geological sequence exposed in the Caucasus and in Transcaucasia—from the Paleozoic to the Quaternary. Despite the specific features of the Caucasian fauna, Abich successfully established the geological age of the enclosing strata. For some years his stratigraphic conclusions served as the basis of all geological research in the Caucasus, and only in the middle of the twentieth century have his data been subjected to more or less important revision.

Studying the tectonic structure of the areas in which he carried out his investigations, Abich interpreted this structure from the standpoint of ideas then current. He thought that all parallel mountain ranges arose concurrently; thus, in the Caucasus he distinguished four major directions of tectonic lines and, consequently, four stages of tectogenesis. Adhering to Buch’s ideas, he considered all mountains to be elevation craters that originated from the intrusion of magmatic masses, and classified canyon-like mountain passes as tectonic fissures.

On the whole, Abich correctly plotted the most important tectonic lines in the Caucasus and established that the highest seismicity is associated with these lines. In the southeastern and northwestern ends of the main Caucasian range Abich discovered a regularity in the location of mud volcanoes according to a definite geometrical grid. He established that the discharge of combustible gases and mineral springs are associated with zones of large faults.

Abich was especially interested in the practical aspects of his geological investigations, and he allotted much time to the study of mineral deposits. He located and described a large number of ore deposits and sources of both ferrous and nonferrous metals, gypsum, rock salt, sulfur, alum, combustible minerals, and mineral waters. He made the important discovery of the Chiatura manganese deposit, one of the largest on earth. Studying the oil shows in the Baku region, Abich established that large accumulations of petroleum are associated with the more elevated parts of tectonic structures, and, from 1847 on, he developed and successfully applied the anticlinal theory in the search for oil fields. He apparently made this discovery independently of American geologists who, in the same period (1840–1860), began prospecting for oil in the arched parts of the uplifts. On the question of the origin of petroleum. Abich adhered to the distillation(inorganic) theory and thought petroleum was the product of sublimation, emanating at a substantial depth from coal beds affected by volcanic heat.

Because he possessed an exceptional capacity for work and the ability to understand the peculiarities of a complex geological structure, Abich had great success in conducting his regional investigations and in mapping the geology of large areas. In addition, he completed a series of papers generalizing data collected by the many Russian geologists then working in the Caucasus; these led to fundamental summaries on the geology of various parts of this mountainous country. The maps published by Abich over a period of many decades have been widely used by geologists.

The range of Abich’s scientific interests was wide and varied. Among his printed works, the total number of which exceeds 200, in addition to geological subjects there are papers on geomorphology, glaciology, meteorology, geography, geobotany, meteoritics, and archaeology.

By the time Abich reached the age of seventy, he found it difficult to continue his expeditionary research. Retiring with a pension in 1876, he went to Vienna, where, working intensively, he prepared important summaries on Caucasian geology for publication. He died in his eightieth year from what was tardily diagnosed as acute appendicitis. In accordance with his wishes, Abich’s body was cremated and an urn containing his ashes was buried in his mother’s grave in Koblenz.


1. Original Works. Abich’s most important works are De spinello. Dissertation inauguralis chemicaquam ab amplissimo Universitatis Berolinensis philosophorum rodine sunnos in philosaphia honores (Berlin, 1831); “Vergleichende geologische Grundzüge der kaukasischen, armenischen und nordpersischen Gebirge als Prodromus einer Geologie der kaukasischen Länder,” in Mémoires de l’Académie des Sciences de St. Pétersbourg, 6th ser., 7 (1859), 359–534; “Über eine im Caspischen Meer erschienene Insel nebst Beiträgen zur Kenntniss der Schlammvulkane der caspischen Region,” ibid., 7th ser., 6 (1863), i-viii, 1–151, with 4 maps; Geologische Beobachtungen auf Reisen in der Gebirgsiäandern zwischen Kur und Araxes (Tiflis, 1867); “Geologische Beobachtungen auf Reisen im Kaukasus im Jaher 1873,” in Bulletin de la Société des Naturalistes de Moscou, 48 , pt. 1, no. 2 (1874), 278–342; pt. 2, no. 3 (1874–1875), 63–107, and no. 4 , 243–272; Über krystallinische Hagel im unteren Kaukasus und seine Beziehung zu der Physik des Bodens (Vienna, 1879); Geologische Forschungen in den kaukasischen Ländern, pt. 2, Geologie des armenischen Hochlands. I. Westhälfte (Vienna, 1882); and Geologische Forschungen in kaukasischen Ländern, pt. 3, Geologie des armenischen Hochlands. 2. Östhälfte (Vienna, 1887).

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Abich are E. Suess and A. Abich, “Herman Abich. Biographie und Verzeichnis seiner Werke,” in H. Abich’s Geologische Forschungen in den kaukasischen Ländern, pt. 3, pp. i-xii; and V.V. Tikhomirov and S.P. Volkova, “Zhizn’ i trudy Germana Vil’gelmovicha Abikha” (“The Life and Works of Hermann Wilhelm Abich”), in Ocherki po istorii geologicheskikh znanij (“Essays on the History of Geological Knowledge”), 8 (Moscow, 1959), pp. 177–238, which includes a portrait of Abich and a bibliography of works by him and about him.

V. V. Tikhomirov