Escher, Berend George

views updated


(b. Gorinchem. Netherlands, 4 April 1885; d. Arnhem. Netherlands. 11 October 1967)

geology, minerology, crystallography, volcanology.

The son of George Arnold Escher, chief engineer and director of the State Public Works Department, and of Charlotte Marie de Hartitzsch, Escher was educated in Switzerland, where a college teacher, F. Mühlberg, inspired him to choose a career in geology. He completed his studies at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich under Albert Heim. with a dissertation on the pre-Triassic folding in the western Alps (1911). The thorough schooling in Swiss field geology and the influence of Heim’s drawings marked Escher’s work. He married Emma Brosy. They had three children.

Escher began his career as an assistant to Eugene Dubois, the discoverer of Pithecanthropus erectus, at the University of Amsterdam, then became curator of the geological collection of the Technological University of Delft. He broadened his experience by joining the Bataafse Petroleum Company as a geologist in Batavia (now Djakarta), Java. Here he became acquainted not only with petroleum geology and the petroleum industry but also with recent volcanic activity (dealt with in several of his publications). At Escher’s urging the first governmental volcanological survey (Vulkaan Bewakingsdienst) was established in 1919 in the Netherlands East Indies.

In 1922 Escher was appointed professor of geology and director of the State Museum of Geology and Mineralogy in Leiden. With L.M.R. Rutten at the University of Utrecht, he was one of the first to introduce geology as an academic subject in the Netherlands. On his own he produced a curriculum covering the earth sciences, and before 1916 he had written a popular book on physical geology. He adapted the latter work and completely revised it three times, the last edition dating from 1951. Besides geology Escher taught mineralogy and crystallography, and wrote textbooks on these subjects.

At. leiden. Escher again took up the subject of his dissertation, concentrating on the area around Lugano in southern Switzerland, characterized by Permo-Carboniferous sedimentation and volcanism. He undertook the mapping of the area with his students, expanding it eastward to cover the Bergamo Alps of northern Italy. In 1932 he damaged his knee in a fall and was forced to delegate all field activities to his former pupil L. U. de Sitter, who completed the survey.

Escher’s inaugural lecture in 1922 dealt with the causes of and the relation between internal geological forces. Of importance to this interest in geophysics is his later work in which he tried to use the sparse geophysical data then available to find a solution to the many conflicting hypotheses regarding the causes of orogenesis. The discovery of the zone of negative gravity anomaly in the East Indies led to discussions regarding its interpretation with Felix Vening Meinesz. P. H. Kuenen. and J. H. F. Umbgrove. Escher’s contribution. concerning the place of volcanism in the developing model, introduced Arthur A. Holmes’s ideas of underlying convection currents. Escher speculated on the possibility that the moon was derived from the earth and on its possible composition. After studying the moon’s morphology, he concluded that its craters were likely of volcanic origin.

Escher was the first geologist in the Netherlands to use laboratory experiments for the study of geological phenomena. His experiments in connection with salt domes were carried out with Kuenen (1929), who later used experimental methods in his sedimentological research. Experimental facilities designed by Escher served engineering purposes in the reclamation of the Zuider Zee.

Escher’s outspoken integrity caused his confinement as a hostage by the Germans in 1942. Afterward he went into hiding until the end of hostilities. In 1945 he became the first postwar rector of the University of Leiden, in which capacity he stimulated the development of a modernized student society. Escher retired in 1955. His deteriorating sight prevented his continuing scientific work.


1. Original Works. Escher published some 110 books and papers. A chronological list is appended to his obituary in Geologie en Mijnbouw, 46, (see below). The titles of his textbooks are Grondslagen der Algemene Geologie (from 7th ed. [1948] onward: Amsterdam. 1916–1951). and Algemene Mineralogie en Kristallografie (The Hague, 1935; rev. ed., Gorinchem. 1950). The results of geological work in the southern Alps carried out under his guidance from 1926 to 1939 are compiled by L. U. de Sitter and C. M. de Sitter-Koomans. “The Geology of the Bergamasc Alps, Lombardia, Italy,” in Leidse Geologisch Medelingen. 14B (1949). 9–257.

Several of Escher’s publications, mostly in Dutch, deal with different East Indian volcanoes; for example, see “Krakatoa.” in Handelingen Eerste Ned. Ind. Natuurwet. Congr. Weltevreden. (1919). 28–35 and 198–219: the article also contains the excursion guide. This led him to study the caldera problem in “On the Formation of Calderas.” in Leidse Geologisch Medelingen, 3 (1929), 183–219: also in Proc. Fourth Pac. Sci. Congr. Java. (1929). 571–587.ǀPerhaps his most significant contribution is “On the Relation Between the Volcanic Activity in the Netherlands East Indies and the Belt of Negative Gravity Anomalies Discovered by Vening Meinesz.” in Proc. Kon. Ned. Akad. Wet., 36 (1933). 677–685.

For his interest in the moon. see “Moon and Earth,” in Proc. Kon. Ned. Akad. Wet., 36 (1933). 127–138: and “Origin of the Asymmetrical Shape of the Earth’s Surface and Its Consequences upon Volcanism on Earth and Moon.” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America. 60 (1949). 353–362. For the experiments on salt domes with Kuenen, see Leidse Geologisch Medelingen. 3 (1929, 151–181. A summary of most of Escher;s geological experiments is “Eine Übersicht der im geologischen Institut in Leiden von 1920 bis Ende 1937 ausgeführten geologischen Experimente,” in C. R. Congr. Int. de Géogr. Amsterdam. 2 (1938), 273–278.

II. Secondary Literature. An obituary of Escher in Dutch, with a list of most of his publications, is in Geologie en Mijnbouw, 46 , 417–422. For further secondary literature, see “Escher” in Biografisch woordenboek van Nederland, I (1979). Also of value is M. Neumann van Padang, History of Volcanology in the East Indies. Scripta Geologica 71 (1983). which mentions Escher as the initiator of the Vulkaan Bewakingsdienst.

J. J. Dozy