Eichwald, Karl Eduard Ivanovich

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Eichwald, Karl Eduard Ivanovich

(b. Mitau, Latvia [now Jelgava, Latvain S.S.R.], 4 July 1795; d. St. Petersburg, Russia, 16 November 1876)

geology, paleontology.

Eichler’s father, Johann Christian Eichwald, was a private tutor to the family of a baron of Courtland and later a letcurer in modern languages and natural history. His mother, Charlotte Elizabeth Louis, was the daughter of the court hairdresser. Eichwald was tutored at home before attending the Gymnasium. He began his studies at Dorpat University, where he studied medicine and natural sciences. To expand the range of his knowledge he traveled to Germany, Switzerland, France, and England in 1817, taking specialized courses at the universities of Vienna and Paris. In 1819, upon his return to Russia, Eichwald defended his dissertation at Vilna University and was awarded the M.D. degree; he then worked as a physician for two years.

In 1821 Eichwald became assistant professor at Dorpat University and lectured on geology and paleontology. Two years later he became ordinary professor of obstetrics and zoology at Kazan University, where he also lectured on botany and mineralogy, directed the botanical garden, founded a laboratory of comparative anatomy, and furthered the development of the department of natural history. While in Kazan he married Sofia Ivanovna Finke, the daughter of a professor at the university.

In 1827 Eichwald moved to Vilna and was given the chair of zoology, comparative anatomy, and obstetrics at the university; from 1831 to 1837 he held the chair of zoology, mineralogy, and anatomy at the Medical-Surgical Academy in Vilna. In 1838 Eichwald moved to St. Petersburg, where he received the same chair in a similar type of academy. Until his retirement in 1855 he simultaneously lectured on paleontology at the Mining Institute and on mineralogy and geognosy at the Engineering Academy. In 1826 the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg elected him a corresponding member. In 1846 the Medical-Surgical Academy conferred the doctorate of surgery on him, and the University of Breslau awarded him the Ph.D.

Eichwald was a naturalist of wide interests. At different periods of his life he successfully devoted himself to medicine and zoology, as well as to botany, geology, paleontology, anthropology, ethnography, and archaeology. His major fields of concentration were geology and especially paleontology.

During the first years of his scientific activity Eichwald traveled a great deal, which opportunity enabled him to collect abundant and varied material in natural history. In addition to visiting western Europe, he traveled extensively throughout European Russia, concentrating on the Baltic provinces. He also visited Scandinavia and in 1846 made excursions to Italy, Sicily, and Algeria. The results of his trip in 1825–1826, across the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus, Persia, and western Turkmenistan, were extremely fruitful: he collected extensive material on the existing flora and fauna and on the geology, paleontology, and geography of a region that was virtually unstudied at the time.

In 1829–1831 Eichwald published a three-volume monograph on zoology, in which he gave a classification of animals and supplied comparative anatomical, physiological, and paleontological data. By a natural system of classification Eichwald understood not merely a simple and definite grouping of animals by criteria of similarity in organization, but also an expression of the genetic relations actually existing between them. In his researches on present-day fauna Eichwald described many previouslys unknown forms of mollusks and fishes of the Caspian, brackish-water animals of the Black Sea area, and reptilians of certain regions of the Caucasus.

In the 1830’s Eichwald became increasingly interested in the study of fossil organisms. He soon received general recognition as the leading paleontologist of Russia and retained this reputation for more than thirty years. He demonstrated exceptional erudition in a wide range of areas concerning fossil organisms and studied both the flora and fauna of all orders and classes throughout the entire geologic sequence from Cambrian to Recent deposits.

His researches were not limited to the fossils that he collected but also included numerous collections regularly sent to him by geologists from the most diverse regions of Russia. Amid this vast quantity of material Eichwald discovered and described for the first time a great number of previously unknown forms. Endeavoring to summarize and systematize the accumulated data, he began the compilation of an extensive summary of the paleontology of Russia. As a result, during the period from 1853 to 1868 he published (simultaneously in Russian and French) three volumes, in separate sections, of his fundamental monograph, Lethaea Rossica. The total work consists of about 3,500 pages of text and three atlases that contain 133 plates representing more than 2,000 different fossil organisms.

While preparing this exceptionally voluminous work, Eichwald worked alone and tried to do everything without assistants. Having undertaken a task too great for one man, he inevitably produced a number of inaccurate descriptions and made certain errors in determining the systematic position and geologic age of the fossils. Nevertheless, his paleonotological summary was a valuable scientific contribution; it was very widely used, and many of the new species that he described have retained his nomenclature.

In paleontology Eichwald sought to study a fossil without separating it from geology, a practice that enabled him to draw conclusions on the age of the strata and on the physicogeographical environment that the extinct organisms had inhabited. His stratigraphic deductions formed the basis for most of the geologic research carried out in Russia during that period. In the early 1830’s Eichwald was the first to divide the entire geologic column over the distance from Lithuania to the Black Sea, distinguishing detailed units from Transition beds, i.e., Lower Paleozoic, up to Quaternary deposits, inclusive. He also confirmed the wide development of Silurian deposits in the Baltic provinces and supplied the earliest information on the fauna of Pliocene and Quaternary terraces on the coast of the Caspian Sea. In addition, he correctly resolved the question of the geologic age of deposits found throughout the wide expanses of central Russia.

In studying the lithologic features of the rocks in which the fossils were found, Eichwald, outstripping his mid-nineteenth-century contemporaries, began to draw conclusions on the paleogeographic conditions that had existed in the distant geologic past and on the ecological environments that the organisms had inhabited. On a number of geologic questions he adhered basically to opinions that were progressive for his time. For instance, contrary to the majority of his contemporaries, who in conformity with the views of the catastrophist school considered orogeny to be a rapid process, Eichwald wrote in the 1830’s that mountains originate from repeated slow uplifts that do not occur simultaneously in different parts of the mountain range.

Regarding the nature of island arcs of the Aleutian type, Eichwald expressed an opinion congruent with the present concepts of the formation of such arcs in weakened zones of the earth’s crust. He also stated that prominent faults exist on the boundaries between the continents and the oceans and that they are marked by volcanoes.

In 1827—beofre the contraction hypothesis was formulated—Eichwald wrote that folding results from the combined effect of gravity and lateral compression, in other words, that it is caused by a combination of vertical and tangential strains.

Eichwald several times changed his ideas on the development of the organic world. Originally, in the 1820’s, his views were transformist: he thought that all types and classes of animals originated from a primal protoplasm. Later, under the influence of proponents of the catastrophist theory, Eichwald wrote of the periodic destruction of every living thing and the subsequent appearance of a completely new fauna and flora as the result of an act of divine creation, this new life being more highly organized than the one that had previously existed. Following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, however, Eichwald renounced his catastrophist and creativist concepts and became an adherent of evolutionary theory.

Eichwald was interested in the problems of the origin of certain rocks and minerals. He believed, among other things, that dolomite was formed as a result of ordinary sedimentation from water, despite the dominance at that time of Buch’s hypothesis, which asserted that this rock was formed from limestones under the influence of “magnesian vapors.” Eichwald divided hard coals according to their origin into two types that correspond to the present allochthonous and autochthonous coals. He thought that the process of coal formation takes place at a great depth as a result of the pressure exerted by the rock mass above and the action of heat from below.

Eichwald’s textbooks on mineralogy (1844) and on geology (1846) were based on the specific features of the geologic structure of Russia. He was one of the first (1821–1823) to lecture systematically on paleontology, thus laying the foundation for the creation of chairs of paleontology in Russian universities and institutes.

A member of many Russian and foreign scientific societies, Eichwald was especially active in the work of the Free Economic Society of Russia.


I. Original Works. Eichwald’s major works include Ideen zu einer systematischen Oryktozoologie oder über verändert und unverändert ausgegrabene Thiere(Mitau[Jelgava], 1821); Zoologia specialis quam exposites animalibus, tam fossilibus potissimum Rossiae in universum et Poloniae in specie, 3 vols. (Vilna, 1829–1831); “Fauna Caspio-Caucasia nonnulis observationibus novis illustravit,” in Nauveaux mémoires de la Société des naturalistes de Moscou, 7 (1842); Polny kurs geologicheskikh nauk preimuschestvenno po otnosheniyu k Rossii:I . Oriktognozia preimushchestvenno po otnosheniyu k Rossii i s prisovokupleniem upotreblenia mineralov (St. Petersburg, 1844), and II. Geognozia, preimushchestvenno po otnosheniyu k Rossii (St. Petersburg, 1846); and Lethaea Rossica ou Paléontologie de la Russie, 3 vols. (Stuttgart, 1853–1868).

II. Secondary Literature. On Eichwald and his work, see E. Lindemann, “Das fünfzigjährige Doktorjubiläum Eduard von Eichwald’s, Dr. der Philosophie, Medizin und Chirurgie,” in Verhandlungen der Russisch-kaiserlichen mineralogischen Gesellschaft zu St. Petersburg, 2nd ser., 5 (1870), 278–358.

V. V. Tikhomirov