Breithaupt, Johann Friedrich August

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Breithaupt, Johann Friedrich August

(b. Probstzella, Germany, 18 May 1791; d. Freiberg, Germany, 22 September 1873)


The son of a local official in Probstzella, Breithaupt received his early education in the schools and Gymnasium of Saalfeld, to which his father was transferred. He was influenced by the mining activity that still thrived near Saalfeld, and decided to prepare for a career in this field. After a year and a half of study at the University of Jena, he went to the Bergakademic at Freiberg, Saxony, in the spring of 1811. There he came under the influence of Abraham Gottlob Werner, who had been a dominant figure at the Bergakademie for nearly forty years.

In 1813 Breithaupt was appointed to the post of assistant teacher (Hülfslehrer) in the Mining Academy and also to the post of gem inspector (Edel–stein–Inspektor); he was the last to hold the latter office. Werner died in 1817 and was succeeded as professor of mineralogy by Friedrich Mohs. When Mohs left for Vienna in 1826, Breithaupt became his successor; he held the post until his retirement in 1866. He became blind soon after he retired, and this put an end to his mineralogical activity, which had been intensive until then.

Breithaupt was married in 1816 to Agnes Ulrike Winkler, the daughter of an official of a Blaufarbenwerk (a plant for producing cobalt blue) in the Erzgebirge near Freiberg. They had three daughters and one son, Hermann, who studied at the Bergakademie, was improsoned for his political activities in 1848, and later became a mining official in Spain.

Breithaupt’s first major publication was the completion of C. A. S. Hoffman’s four-volume Handbuch der Mineralogie (1816–1818), which was the only authorized publication of Werner’s mineral system. Systematic mineralogy—the recognition and classification of minerals and the discovery of new species—was Breithaupt’s chief interest. The so-called natural classifications, derived ultimately from Linnaeus, were still much in vogue, and for Breithaupt the elaboration of such a classification was a principal objective for many decades. The result appeared in his Vollständiges Handbuch der Mineralogie of which only three of a planned four volumes appeared (1836, 1841, and 1847). Although the work remained incomplete, the taxonomy of minerals into classes, orders, genera, and species and the associated nomenclature show that Breithaupt resisted the introduction of the chemical and crystal-chemical classifications which have since been generally adopted. In contrast, J. D. Dana, who in the first two editions of his System of Mineralogy (1837, 1844) had also attempted a “natural classification” with binomial nomenclature, wrote in the preface to the third edition (1850): “To change is always seeming fickleness, But not to change with the advance of science, is worse, it is persistence in error…” Succeeding editions of his work developed into the standard in the field.

Breithaupt was a great observer and named many minerals. His successor and author of a necrology, Albin Weissbach, listed forty-seven, but the true number is even greater. Of the more than eighty mineral names devised by Breithaupt, about half—including such important ones as monazite, phlogopite, and orthoclase—are still regarded as referring to valid species. The naming of new minerals may, however, be regarded as merely a phase of Breithaupt’s interest in systematics. Of more fundamental importance was his early work Über die Echtheit der Krystalle (1815), on pseudomorphs, which, although they had been recognized as such by Werner, had not received the attention they deserved. Breithaupt also was the first to distinguish amorphous minerals, which he referred to as “porodine” a term long since obsolete.

Breithaupt’s greatest contribution by far to mineralogy and to the study of ore deposits was his little book Die Paragenesis der Mineralien (1849). Although others had noticed that there is some regularity in the association of different minerals, he was the first to make a comprehensive study of such regularities and to emphasize the importance of age relations among associated minerals. In the year following the publication of the Paragenesis, but only occasionally thereafter, Breithaupt gave a formal course of lectures on paragenesis. The importance of his work in this field was immediately recognized. For instance, in the first volume of the English edition of his Textbook of Chemical and Physical Geology (1859), Gustav Bischoff based his discussion of mineral associations largely on Breithaupt’s work and referred extensively to the Paragenesis and related publications. The term “paragenesis” has been generally adopted, and the importance of the relations to which it applies is now recognized by all mineralogists and geologists. The Breithaupt Colloquium held at Freiberg in 1966 to commemorate the one hundred seventy-fifth anniversary of his birth (and, incidentally, just a century after his retirement) was entitled “Problems of Paragenesis in Mineralogy, Geochemistry, Petrology, and Ore Geology”.

Breithaupt was a great teacher, and during his last years his students included many Americans: Eugene Hilgard, George Brush, Arnold Hague, and Raphael Pumpelly, among others. In 1865 twenty-four of the fifty-one newly admitted students at the Bergakademie were from the United States, and it is probable that most of them studied under Breithaupt. Pumpelly gave a warm and amusing account of his years at Freiberg (1856–1859), with several references to Breithaupt, of whom he wrote: “Breithaupt was already old; he was, however, one of the fathers of Mineralogy, and an inspiring lecturer. He taught crystallography without mathematics…. He created in his students an interest in crystal forms and systems, that I did not find later in the mathematical treatment under Alvin Weissbach” (My Reminiscences, 1918).

Breithaupt summarized his views at the end of his career in a contribution to the Festschrift published for the centennial of the Bergakademie (1866). From this it is clear that mineral classification was still his chief interest. He had failed to follow the progress of crystallography and had persisted in recognizing only four crystal systems and in attempting to develop the forms of hexagonal and tetragonal crystals from those of the isometric system by means of his Progressions-Theorie. He appears to have been unaware of Johann F. C. Hessel’s work (1830) on the derivation of the crystallographic symmetry classes and of Bravais’s (1850) on translation lattices. Although he knew of the work of William Whewell and William H. Miller (1839), he did not favor their approach. Breithaupt apparently failed to recognize his own most valuable contribution: in summarizing his career, he did not so much as mention the paragenesis of minerals.


I. Original Works. A complete bibliography of Breithaupt’s publications is in Poggendorff’s Biographischlitterarishes Handwürterbuch, I (1863), 290, and III (1898), 187.

His elaboration of “natural classifications” was Vollständiges Handbuch der Mineralogie, 3 vols. (Dresden–Leipzig. 1836–1847). The first volume is a textbook of mineralogy and also contains an extended statement of Breithaupt’s views on mineral classification; Vols. II and III comprise systematic description of species, arranged by classes, orders, and genera. A planned fourth volume was never published. Die Paragenesis der Mineralien (Freiberg, 1849) carries the subtitle Mineralogisch, geognostisch und chemisch beleuchtet, mit besonderer Rücksicht auf Bergbau. This little book of 274 pages is by far Breithaupt’s most important and lasting contribution.

II. Secondary Literature. Franz von Kobell, Geschichte der Mineralogie, von 1650–1860 (Munich, 1864), is the most comprehensive history of mineralogy by a slightly younger (1803–1882) contemporary of Breithaupt’s. It contains many critical comments but only incidental reference to paragenesis.

See also H. J. Rösler, “August Breithaupt—sein Leben und Werk”, in Freiberger Forschungshefte, C–230 (Leipzig, 1968), 9–19.

B. Voland, “Über die Entwicklung der Mineralsystematik in der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts durch die Schüler Werners”, in Abraham Gottlob Werner Gedenkschrift, Freiberger Forschungshefte, C–223 (Leipzig, 1967), 179–190, is a discussion of the development of mineral systematics that considers Breithaupt’s contributions in the light of the advances made by his contemporaries.

Also of value are Raphael Pumpelly, My Reminiscences, I (New York, 1918); and Festschrift zum humdertjärigen Jubiläum der Königl. Sächs. Bergakademie zu Freiberg am 30. Juli 1866 (Dresden, 1866).

Adolf Pabst

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Breithaupt, Johann Friedrich August

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