Dechen, Heinrich von

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Dechen, Heinrich von

(b. Berlin, Germany, 25 March 1800; d. Bonn, Germany, 15 February 1889)


Dechen was born into a family of Prussian civil servants. At first he was tutored at home with his elder brother; both of them then attended the Gymnasium in Grauen Kloster. Heinrich took his final examination during Easter 1818. He decided to enter the mining profession and began his training at the University of Berlin, then was accepted as a mining Expektant by the office of the inspector general of mines and admitted to the Haupt-Bergwerks-Eleven-Institut.

During his student years in Berlin, Dechen served with the military engineers. Following this he began his practical training at Haberbank mine near Sprockhövel in October 1819. Named to the Berg-Eleven on 15 July 1820, he found employment in the mining offices in Bochum and Essen.

At this time Dechen formed a friendship with Karl von Oeynhausen that led first to Dechen’s sharing in Deynhausen’s mining studies, and then to a trip together through German, Belgian, and French mining regions. On this expedition, Dechen, through the offices of Leopold von Buch, made the acquaintance of Alexander von Humboldt in Paris.

After the two young friends had prepared a joint report on their journey, Dechen took the examination for Bergreferendar in March 1824. After following a tour of the Saxon and Bohemian ore mines, he was named Oberbergamtsassessor. He then undertook a second foreign journey with Oeynhausen, this time to England and Scotland. They again reported together in Berlin on their expedition. In 1828 Dechen was transferred to the Oberbergamt in Bonn. Here for the first time he came into close contact with Rhineland mining.

After two years Dechen was called back to Berlin, where he became Oberbergrat and a councillor in the Ministry of the Interior. He also held the post of assistant professor at the University of Berlin, where he lectured on mining. Dechen became a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences and presented valuable studies before it. These included papers on material gathered during his journeys, as well as his translation of de la Beche’s Handbook of Geognosy and his own Geognostische Übersichtskarte von Deutschland, Frankreich, England und den angrenzenden Ländern (1838). From 1838 on he also participated in the editing of Karsten’s Archiv für Mineralogie, Geognosie, Bergbau- und Hüttenkunde.

The philosophical faculty of the University of Bonn honored Dechen’s scientific achievements by naming him an honorary doctor. When the position of superintendent of mines in Bonn became open upon the promotion of Count Ernst August von Beust to inspector general of mines, Humboldt and Buch recommended that Dechen be nominated to it. He was named to this post in 1841 and Bonn and the Rhineland became his second home.

In Bonn, Dechen’s mining and geological skill fully manifested itself for the first time. He traversed the Rhineland and the neighboring portions of Westphalia, as well as the hard coal areas of the Loire and the Saône regions of France, everywhere occupying himself with the exploration of the earth’s interior and the progress of the art of mining. He prepared numerous geological maps, which Humboldt described as models in this field and which for long were standard. The project of a systematic geological survey covering the whole of Prussia—which led in 1873 to the establishment of the Geological Institute in Berlin—was based on Dechen’s investigations. Dechen was invited to become a curator of the institute in 1875.

In addition to these major undertakings, Dechen wrote many individual books and articles for scientific journals and magazines. He also took part in the reform of Prussian mining legislation in Berlin. Indeed, in the winter of 1859–1860 Dechen temporarily assumed the direction of all Prussian mining, metallurgical, and salt-mining operations, but he did not let himself be persuaded to remain permanently in this post in Berlin. He was too much attached to Bonn and the Rhineland, to which he returned. There on 23 May 1860 he obtained the rank of inspector general of mines.

Too much, however, lay on Dechen’s shoulders. He wished to devote himself completely to his scientific work and asked to retire from the civil service. His request was granted (after repeated vain appeals to him to change his mind) on 1 January 1864.

Following his retirement from government service Dechen continued to devote himself to research and scientific writing. He further continued to take part in the activities of those service and scientific organizations whose member, honorary member, or chairman he was. Many honors were awarded him, including his appointment to the Prussian Privy Council in 1884. On 10 November 1886 he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered; his condition slowly worsened and he died in 1889.


I. Original Works. Dechen wrote about 400 works, most of them published in journals. A complete bibliography is in H. Laspeyres, Heinrich von Dechen. Ein Lebensbild (Bonn, 1889).

II. Secondary Literature. In addition to Laspeyres’s biography, see G. Schmidt, Die Familie von Dechen (Merseburg, 1890); Walter Serlo, “Heinrich von Dechen,” in Glückauf!, 64 (1928), 1517–1519; “Heinrich von Dechen (Lebensbilder zur Geschichte des Bergbaus),” in Seitschrift für das Berg-, Hütten- und Salinenwesen, 82 (1934), 295–297; “Heinrich von Dechen,” in Walter Serlo, Männer des Bergbaus (Berlin, 1937), pp. 39–40; and von Zittel, “Heinrich von Dechen,” in Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, XLVII (Leipzig, 1903), 629–631.

M. Koch