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Dietrich, Wilhelm Otto


(b. Senden, near Ulm, Germany, 30 July 1881; d. Berlin, German Democratic Republic, 26 March 1964)

mammalian paleontology.

Dietrich was the third of the six sons and one daughter of Otto Dietrich, the director of a mill, and of Maria Kramer. He graduated from the gymnasium in Ulm in 1899 and then entered the Technical University in Stuttgart; in 1901 he transferred to the University of Tübingen, where he studied geology and paleontology. In December 1903 Dietrich received the doctorate under E. Koken, with the dissertation “Ältester Donauschotter auf der Strecke Immendingen-Ulm” (1904). He subsequently studied at Freiburg im Breisgau in order to enhance his knowledge of petrography.

By the autumn of 1904, Ernst A. Wüfing had appointed Dietrich an assistant at the Mineralogical-Geological Institute of the newly founded Danzig Technical University, the development of which demanded all of his time and energy, Before this activity could bear scientific fruit, however, otosclerosis forced Dietrich to relocate in the spring of 1907. A stay in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland failed to bring about the desired improvement in his health, and Dietrich suffered a progressive hearing loss, in the last decades of his life becoming completely deaf.

Through Koken’s efforts, in 1908 Dietrich secured an assistantship with Eberhard Fraas in the geology department of the Royal Natural History Collection in Stuttgart, where he spent three years. Besides his museum duties he was entrusted with paleontological field work in Steinheim an der Murr, where complete skeletons of the great mammals of the Pleistocene were discovered. In 1909 and 1910 Dietrich reported on the remains of giant deer and other Cervidae. Under his direction the skeleton of a mammoth (Elephas primigenius) was salvaged and installed in the museum in 1910. He meticulously described this Swabian mammoth in a thoroughly researched work characterized by careful argumentation and clear presentation—the hallmarks of all of Dietrich’s subsequent projects. By the time the work was published (1912), its author was no longer in Stuttgart. Despite Fraas’s recommendation and Dietrich’s evident promise as a scientist, the Royal Württemberg Ministry of Religion and Education could not bring itself to assure him a secure post.

At Fraas’s suggestion W. von Branca (formerly Branco) hired Dietrich in May 1911 as an assistant at the Royal Geological-Paleontological Institute and Museum of the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. He served there until March 1945 as assistant and chief assistant and then as curator under Branca. J. F. Pompeckj, and H. Stille. He retired in 1959.

In 1921 Dietrich married Lotte Trendelenburg, daughter of a privy councillor. Their only son was killed on the eastern front in March 1943. This was not the only sacrifice the war demanded of them; in the same year their house was destroyed by bombing. They found modest quarters in two basement rooms at the institute. For Dietrich this close proximity of residence and work place was ideal; even after his official retirement he continued to live in the basement of the institute. In the fall of 1963 he contracted pneumonia, as a consequence of which he died, after months of pain, on 26 March 1964.

Dietrich’s only ambition at the Berlin institute was to be a good assistant to the professor and a good manager of the collection. He tended and brought order to the great majority of the rich scientific holdings of the institute. At the same time, his post inspired him to undertake many scientific works and prevented one-sidedness. Besides mammals, he concerned himself with foraminifers, corals, mussels, and snails. He had a masterful command of paleontology, which he always linked with stratigraphy.

Dietrich’s specialty was the study of mammals of the early Tertiary and the Quaternary, as well as their biostratigraphic evaluation. He was not interested in European finds; rather, he prized those of Africa. He worked with some of the material yielded by the Tendaguru expedition, as well as the finds of the expeditions of Reck and Kohl. His favorite forms were elephants, hoofed animals, and predators, but primates and rodents also commanded his attention. Predominantly analytically inclined, Dietrich did not pursue theories or grand syntheses. For decades he discussed new works on fossil mammals in the Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Paläontologie. His reviews were impartial, reliable, clear, and constructively critical.

The Paleontological Society of German-Speaking Regions named Dietrich an honorary member in 1942, “in acknowledgment of his exemplary researches.” He was also an honorary member of the National Association for Natural Science in Württemberg (1956) and the Geological Association of the Upper Rhine (1959). In 1957 the German Geological Society recognized him as an outstanding paleontologist by bestowing on him its highest award, the Hans Stille Medal.


I. Original Works. Dietrich’s publications are listed by Daber (see below). His writings include Ältester Donauschotter auf der Strecke Immendingen-Ulm,” in Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie und Geologie, supp, 19 (1904), 1–39, his dissertation; “Neue Riesenhirschreste aus dem schwäbischen Diluvium,” in Jahreshefte des Vereins für vaterländische Naturkunde, Württemberg, 65 (1909), 132–161; “Elephas primigenius Fraasi, eine schwäbische Mammutrasse,” ibid., 68 (1912) 42–106; “Die Gastropoden der Tendaguruschichten der Aptstufe und der Oberkreide im südlichen Deutsch-Ostafrika (wissenschaftliche Ergebnisse der Tendaguru-Expedition (1909–1912),” in Archiv fü Biontologie, 3 no. 4 (1914), 101–152: “Elephas antiquus Recki n. f. aus dem Diluvium Deutsch-Ostafrikas (wissenschaftliche Ergebnisse der Oldoway-Expedition 1913),” ibid., 4 (1915), 1–80; “Gastropoda mesozoica: Familie Nerineidae,” in Fossilium catalogus, I (Berlin, 1925), 31; “Beitrag zur Kenntnis der Bohnerzformation in Schwaben. 2. Über die Nager aus den Spaltenablagerungen der Umgebung Ulms,” in Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Paläontologie, supp. 62 , Abt. B (1929), 121–150; “Beitrag zur Kenntnis der Bohnerzformation in Schwaben. 3. Raubtiere aus den Bohnerzablagerungen der Ulmer und der Eichstätter Alb,” ibid., supp. 63 , Abt. B (1930), 451–474: “Die Huftiere aus dem Obereozän von Mähringen auf der Ulmer Alb,” in Palaeontographica, A83 (1936), 163–209; “Ältestquartäre Säugetiere aus der südlichenSerengeti, Deutsch-Ostafrika,” ibid., A94 (1942), 77–133; ′Stetigkeit und Unstetigkeit in der Pferdegeschichte, ’ in Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Paläontologie, Abt. B. Abhandlungen, 91 (1949), 121–148: “Fossile Antilopen und Rinder Äquatorialafrikas (Material der Kohl-Larsschen Expedition),” Palaeontographica, A99 (1950), 1–62: and “Geschichte der Sammlungen des Geologisch-Paläontologischen Institutes und Museums der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin,” in Berichte der Geologischen Gesellschaft der DDR, 6 (1962), 247–289.

II. Secondary Literature. R. Daber, “Wilhelm Otto Dietrich,” in Berichte der Geologischen Gesellschaft der DDR, 10 , no. 1 (1965), 99–106, with portrait: W. Gross, “Wilhelm Otto Dietrich (1881–1964),” in Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie, Monatshefte, 1964, no. 7, 385–387, with portrait; E.Hennig, “Wilhelm Otto Dietrich, Paläontologischer Forscher,” in Jahreshefte des Vereins für vaterländische Naturkunde, Württemberg, 120 (1965) 55–58, with portrait; K. Staesche, “Wilhelm Otto Dietrich, 1881–1964,” in Jahrbuch und Mitteilungen des Oberrheinischen geologischen Vereins, n.s. 46 (1964); and H. Wehrli, “Wilhelm Otto Dietrich’s Leben und Wirken, ’ in Geologie, 5 , no. 4/5 (1956), 261–265, with bibliography 266–270 and portrait.

Longer memorial works are W. D. Heinrich, “Wilhelm Otto Dietrich, 1881–1964.” in Zeitschrift für geologische Wissenschaft10 , no. 7 (1982), 883–1051, and as editor. Wirbeltier-Evolution und Faunengeschichte im Kaenozoikum (Berlin, 1983).

Emil Kuhn-Schnyder

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