Beyrich, Heinrich Ernst

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Beyrich, Heinrich Ernst

(b. Berlin, Germany, 31 August 1815; d. Berlin, 9 July 1896)

geology, Paleontology.

Beyrich was born into a substantial old Berlin merchant family. After completing his secondary education he entered Berlin University at the age of sixteen in order to study the natural sciences, especially mineralogy under Christian Samuel Weiss. In 1834 he transferred to the University of Bonn. Where Goldfuss inspired him to specialize in paleontology. Geology and paleontology were his major interests throughout most of his life.

Before and after completing his studies Beyrich wandered through much of Germany, Switzerland, and Italy in order to add to his knowledge of geology and paleontology. In the course of his travels he met a number of eminent geologists and paleontologists, including Peter Merian, Agassiz, and Studer in Switzerland and Élie de Beaumont, Deshayes, and Brongniart in Paris. He had been recommended to these men by Leopold von Buch and Alexander von Humboldt.

Beyrich received the Ph.D. from Berlin University in 1837 with a Latin dissertation dealing with the goniatites of the Rhenish Schiefergebirge. His choice of topic was greatly influenced by Buch. In 1841 Beyrich was appointed privatdozent at Berlin University, where he spent the rest of his life, holding a wide range of academic and civil service posts. In 1846 he was appointed associate professor, and in 1865 he became full professor. He was made custodian of the geological collections of the Prussian Mining Administration in 1855, and from 1857 he taught mining students.

Beyrich was one of the founders of the German Geological Society in 1848, and for the rest of his life he was one of its most active promoters; from 1872 to 1895 he was its president. In 1853 Beyrich was elected a full member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and when the Königliche Geologische Landesanstalt und Bergakademie was founded in Berlin in 1873, he was appointed its scientific director. In the same year he became director of the Museum of Natural History.

In 1842 Beyrich was commissioned by the Prussian Mining Administration to make a geological survey of Silesia. His findings were published in 1844 as “Über die Entwickelung des Flötzgebirges in Schlesien,” a masterpiece that combines clear presentation, acute perception, and thoroughness. The work established Beyrich’s reputation as a geologist and stratigrapher; its most important chapters deal with Paleozoic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, and Tertiary strata, as well as the tectonic structures of the area. The investigation comparing the malm strata in Poland (Wieluń, Krakow) and in Moravia (Štramberk, Mikulov, Brno), with the Upper Jurassic in southern France and northern Italy, and the clarification of certain stratigraphic problems of the Mesozoic and Tertiary formations in the Carpathians are a continuation of his Silesian studies.

Beyrich’s explorations of the north German Tertiary formations were of particular importance. They started around 1847 and occupied him for most of his life, although during his last years he published little on the subject. The most important work on these explorations is “Die Conchylien des norddeutschen Tertiärgebirges” (1852–1855), which remained unfinished. The result of this paleontological study was a classification of the north German Tertiary (“Über den Zusammenhang der norddeutschen Tertiärbildungen…, 1855); its best-known result is the conception of an independent Oligocene interpolated between Lyell’s Eocene and Miocene. The Oligocene, the north German counterpart of the Belgian Tongrian and the Rupelian, was first mentioned in 1854 and briefly defined in “Über die Stellung der hessischen Tertiärbildungen.” Ever since, the Oligocene, has occupied its established place in the stratigraphy of the Tertiary.

In his treatise of 1855, Beyrich describes the classification and extension of the north German Tertiary strata. He points out that in Belgium the Tongrian stage immediately follows the Upper Eocene, whereas in the large adjoining sections to the northeast and east there is no Eocene and the north German Tertiary strata cover the older pre-Tertiary strata in transgressive deposits. In 1855 Beyrich wrote:

Their connected and independent geognostic distribution, independent of the presence of older Eocene Tertiary formations, is the prime reason which prevents me from classifying them— in accordance with Lycll—merely as an upper part of the Eocene Tertiary series. Their diverse formations and their abundance in specific organic remains—the extent of which was first revealed in Germany—have motivated me to consider them, rather, as a separate part of the Tertiary period (i.e., Oligocene) instead of assigning them to the Miocene Tertiary stage, as I had done eailier in accordance with d’Orbigny and other authors [“Über den Zusammenhang…,” p. 11].

Beyrich’s studies resulted in a subdivision of the Oligocene into Lower, Middle, and Upper Oligocene. He defined the marine sands of Egeln, near Magdeburg, as Lower Oligocene (i.e., Lower Tongrian); the septarian clay of the Brandenburg region and the sands of the Stettin area connected to the latter’s facies by lateral transition as Middle Oligocene (Rupelian); and the so-called Sternberg rocks and the sedimentary rocks of the same period in central Germany as Upper Oligocene.

Some minor details of Beyrich’s concepts have been changed, but his initial theory has been retained in principle. Even today his definition the Oligocene inspires a flood of discussions and treatises. Beyrich also investigated stratigraphic problems of the Paleozoic in Germany. In 1865 he published a classification of the Permian (Continental Rothliegende [ i.e., Lower Permian] and marine Zechstein [i.e., Upper Permian]) on the southern edge of the Harz Mountains. Beyrich then applied his paleontological knowledge to the clarification of the difficult and tectonically complicated conditions of the Devonian in the Harz Mountains.

Beyrich further defended the division of the Carboniferous in Germany into an older marine system (Carboniferous limestone and culm, respectively) and a younger system (with coal-bearing strata) on several occasions. He was especially interested, too, in comparing the development of the Triassic system in Germany with the Alpine Triassic system. He obtained data primarily by the paleontological findings from the Middle Triassic system (i.e., Muschelkalk) of Upper Silesia.

Geological cartography constitutes a large part of Beyrich’s scientific work, beginning with his fieldwork in Silesia in 1842. In the 1860’s he mapped the Harz Mountains, their northern and southern foothills, and the vicinity of Magdeburg. After that Beyrich emerged as the organizer and coordinator of the geological mapping operations in Prussia and Thuringia., for which he was officially commissioned in 1867 by the Prussian government.

One of Beyrich’s most effective, organizational accomplishments was the introduction of the 1: 25,000 topographic map as the basis for geological mapping in Prussia. The other German geological surveys, and those of some foreign countries, adopted this scale.

The main part of Beyrich’s work, reflected in his published papers, concerned, studies in paleontology and biostratigraphy. More than half of his total of 205 publications are devoted to this subject. His doctoral thesis dealt with paleontological stratigraphy, in that it treated the Devonian goniatites of the Rhenish Schiefergebirge and their stratigraphic distribution. This part of his scientific work is significant not only in scope but also in diversity. There are many groups of individual or multiple fossil representatives of the animal kingdom that were treated by Beyrich. Among them are Mammalia, Stegocephalia, Pisces, Cystoidea, Crinoidea, Echinoidea, Graptolitoidea, Trilobita, Phyllopoda, Cephalopoda, Gastropoda, Pelecypoda, and Brachiopoda; he also investigated corals, sponges, and trace fossils. He dealt with paleobotanical subjects in a number of short papers on Tertiary and Carboniferous plants.

Nevertheless, Beyrich left few purely paleozoological works, Of these, mention should be made of his papers on the Muschelkalk Crinoidea (1857, 1871), Which had been suggested by Johannes Müller’s classic studies on the living Pentacrinus. In addition to a precise and thorough description of the Crinoidea of the German Muschelkalk, which were then little known, Beyrich furnished important information on the organization of the crinoidean skeleton. Thus he was the first to demonstrate the canals in the plates of the crinoid cup and to discuss the symmetrical principles in the cup structure and their taxonomic value.

In his treatise “Über einige Cephalopoden aus dem Muschelkalk der Alpen” (l866) Beyrich made the first attempt to establish connections between Triassic and Jurassic ammonites. This work also contains the first approaches to the taxonomic classification of the later ammonites and their evolutionary relations.

In “Conchylien des norddeutschen Tertiärgebirges” Beyrich split the rather largely classified genera of the older conchologists into subdivisions, so that their relationships could be better understood. Furthermore, such smaller groups were apt to offer more reliable material in discussions of stratigraphic and paleobiogeographic problems. On the other hand, Beyrich was an enemy of unfounded and wanton classification of species. In the introduction to his doctoral thesis (1837) we find the following passage:

I was least inclined to imitate the methods of some excellent scholars of great merit who are wont to label everything in the collections available to them and to publicize such names without scruples simply to add to and to decorate synonymics. In classifying new species I shall always proceed with the greatest care. I am absolutely disinclined to consider the authorship of the newest species possible as an accomplishment or as something enviable. It would appear much more deserving to me to do away with useless divisions and to solidify already known facts by more precise observations [pp. 1–2].

If we take into account that Beyrich was only twenty-two when he wrote this paper, we must admire the great maturity of his systematic, and taxonomic insights and principles. Yet in questions of zoological nomenclature, he took more liberties. He did not think much of the system of nomenclatural priorities, of the system of generic and specific classification, or of the use of synonymy lists.

Beyrich also investigated vertebrates. His main work in this field is on the catarrhine monkey Mesopithecus pentelici of the Lower Pliocene at Pikermi, near Athens. He established its difference from the hominoid Hylobates and its close relationship to the cynomorph Semnopithecus. He also produced memoranda on the Oligocene Anthracotherium, the Pilocene mastodons and rhinoceroses, the Pleistocene elephants and rhinoceroses, the Triassic labyrinthodonts, the Devonian Pterichthyodes and Coccosteidae, the Permian Acanthodes, the Triassic ganoid Tholodus, and the Tertiary selachian Carcharodon.

The range of Beyrich’s paleontological works was due, first, to the era in which he lived, an era in which the differentiation of the geological sciences did not extend so far as today. At that time important fields, such as paleontology, were still comprehensible for the single scientist. Second, under Beyrich’s direction the Berlin Museum started to receive a great volume of paleontological materials from all parts of Germany and many other European countries, the processing of which was entrusted to Beyrich by virtue of his office.

Most of Beyrich’s work dealt with the geology and paleontology of Germany and adjoining European countries. During the last third of the nineteenth century, however, Berlinalso received paleontological collections from overseas that were of great interest to Beyrich. These included Devonian, Carboniferous, and Cretaceous samples from Tripoli, ammonites of the Upper Malm, and Pelecypoda of the Lower Cretaceous from the Zanzibar coast.

Another collection from the island of Timor contained Permian marine fossils: an early work by Beyrich concerned the Timor fauna made famous by Wanner and others. Beyrich also occupied himself for years with the Cretaceous fauna between Cairo and Suez; he received the materials from the explorer Georg Schweinfurth. He also treated the Himalayan ammonite fauna of the Triassic era, and demonstrated that the Triassic contained not only elements of the European Upper Triassic fauna but also of the Middle Triassic.


I. Original Works. Beyrich’s major writings are “Beiträge zur Kenntniss der Versteinerungen des rheinischen Übergangsgebirges,” in Abhandlungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften(1837); De goniatitis in montibus rhenanis occurrentibus (Berlin, 1837), his doctoral dissertation; “Über die Entwickelung des Flötzgebirges in Schlesien,” in Karsten’s Archiv, 18 (1844), 3–68; “Unter-suchungen über Trilobiten. Als Fortsetzung zu der Abhandlung: Ueber einige böhamische Trilobiten,” in Abhandlungender Preussiscken Akademie der Wissenschaften (1845), 1–38; “Die Conchylien des norddeutschen Tertiärgebirges,” in Zeitschrift der Deutschen geologischen Gesellschaft, 5 (1853), 273–358; 6 (1854), 408–500, 726–781; 8 (1856), 21–88; “Über die Stellung der hessischen Tertiärbildungen,” in Verhandlungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (1854), 640–666; “Über den Zusammenhang der norddeutschen Tertiärbildungen, zur Erläuterung einer geologischen Übersichtskarte,” in Abrandulungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (für 1855), 1–20; Über die Crinoiden des Muschelkalkes, ibid, (für 1857), 1–50: Über eine Kohlenkalk-Fauna von Timor,” ibid. (für 1864), 61–98; Über einige Cephalopoden aus dem Muschelkalk der Alpen und über verwandte Arten,” ibid. (für 1866), 105–150; and “Über die Basis der Crinoidea brachiata,” in Monatsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (für 1871), 33–35

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Beyrich are H. W. Dames, “Gedächtnisrede auf Ernst Beyrich, “in Abhandlungen der Königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin (1898), 3–11; W. Hauchecorne, “Nekrolog auf E. Beyrich,” in Jahrbuch der Königlichen Preussischen Geologische Landesanstalt und Bergakademie, 17 (Berlin, 1897), pp. 102–148, with complete bibliography; and E. Koken, Die Deutsche geologische Gesellschaft in den Jahren 1848–1898 mit einem Lebensabriss von Ernst Beyrich (Berlin, 1901).

Heinz Tobien