Goeppert, Heinrich Robert

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Goeppert, Heinrich Robert

(b. Sprottau, Lower Silesia, Germany [now Szprotawa, Poland], 25 July 1800; d. Breslau, Germany [now Wroclaw, Poland], 18 May 1884)

paleobotany, botany.

Goeppert, whose father owned a pharmacy, discovered his love of botany while still a schoolboy. In order to follow his inclination he left school early and worked for five years as a pharmacist. After finishing his education he entered the University of Breslau in 1821 to study medicine. In 1824 he went to the University of Berlin, where he earned his medical degree in 1825. He returned to Breslau in 1826 and established himself as a general practitioner, surgeon, and ophthalmologist. Goeppert soon realized however, that he would not be fully satisfied in this occupation. In 1827, therefore, he became Privatdozentat the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Breslau with a work on plant physiology. In the same year he became an assistant at the university’s botanical garden, with which he was associated for more than fifty-six years. He was promoted to associate professor on the Faculty of Medicine in 1831 and to full professor in 1839. In 1852 Goeppert assumed the chair of botany and was appointed director of the botanical garden and museum. His lectures in these years covered many fields: pharmacology, toxicology, forensic chemistry, systematic botany, plant physiology, plant geography, and paleobotany. He was particularly interested in the cryptogams.

Besides his official duties and scientific studies Goeppert, who was extremely active in public life, participated in the promotion of the cultural and economic interests of the city of Breslau and of the province of Silesia. He was aided in this by his extraordinary organizational ability, as well as by his affability. He was especially concerned with the Schlesische Gesellschaft für Vaterländische Kultur, whose president he was from 1846 until his death. On the fiftieth anniversary of his doctorate, “old Goeppert,” as he was called by the townspeople, was granted the honorary freedom of the city of Breslau. He was an honorary, corresponding, or regular member of more than a hundred learned societies and academies all over the world. Goeppert was married twice, first to the eldest daughter of his professor, Remer, and then—after her early death—to one of her younger sisters. He had one son and one daughter.

With the exception of a few medical topics, Goeppert’s scientific publications were devoted to botany, especially paleobotany. His doctoral dissertation and Habilitationsschrift both dealt with plant physiology. He wrote other works in this field on the evolution of heat in living plants, especially during germination and blossoming, and on the influence of low temperatures on plants; in particular, he studied the problem of whether a plant exposed to cold dies at the moment of freezing or at thawing. He later resumed these investigations and collected them in a book (1883). In another series of works he considered the ecology, physiology, and pathology of forest trees and fruit trees, especially their reactions to mechanical interference and external injuries. For instance, he showed that in stands of spruces and silver firs the roots of all the trees grow together. Hence, if one trunk breaks off or is felled, the stump is nourished by the neighboring trees until the point of fracture or of cutting has grown over and healed. Goeppert also considered questions of plant anatomy and of descriptive botany. He published studies of the anatomical structure of the conifers, of several Casuarinaceae and Magnoliaceae and of tropical Balanophorales.

In 1833 Goeppert entered the field in which he was to accomplish his most distinguished work. Stimulated by Otto, an anatomist at the University of Breslau who had assembled a considerable collection of fossil animal remains found in Silesia, he began to examine this region’s fossil plant remains. The two scientists issued a joint call to their fellow Silesians to assist this project by sending them fossil plants. Their appeal was very successful; Goeppert received rich and interesting materials from many areas. He studied both this material and his own collections with great industry and enthusiasm. The Carboniferous flora from the coal deposits of Upper and Lower Silesia provided his richest discoveries.

Goeppert’s first paleontological work, “Die fossilen Farnkräuter,” appeared in 1836. In it he discussed the Carboniferous ferns and compared them—following strict principles of comparative anatomy—with those of the modern period, thereby establishing his reputation as a paleobotanist. Five years later he began publication of Gattungen der fossilen Pflanzen, vergliechen mit denen der Jetztwelt (1841-1846). This large, illustrated work, with German and French texts, greatly advanced the knowledge of fossil plants. Among Goeppert’s most important achievements was the demonstration that coal seams are formed from the same plants that are found in the clays and sandstones located above and below them. Furthermore, he showed that the coal seams had originated through the high pressures exerted by sedimentary coverings and through decomposition resulting from lack of air, and therefore were not structureless masses carbonized by fire. Goeppert’s entry in the Haarlem Academy’s prize competition concerning the question whether coal seams are autochthonous or allochthonous was awarded the double prize. His studies on the Silesian coal regions enabled Goeppert to give valuable advice on the seams that were worth mining. He generously provided this information to all who sought it.

Following his great success in the study of Carboniferous flora, Goeppert turned attention to the fossil plants of other stages of the earth’s history and produced monographs on the fossil flora of almost all the geological periods. Among these are two masterpieces: Die fossilen Coniferen (1850) and Die fossile Flora der Permischen Formation (1863-1865). These works contain the results of his microscopic examination of various specimens, including chips and thin sections of siliceous trunks; this examination allowed him to provide the first detailed comparisons with the tissues of living woods.

Goeppert was especially attracted by the flora of the Tertiary. He described and reconstructed palm, yew, and plane forests and cypress stands from various fossil occurrences in Silesia. As in his work on the Paleozoic and Mesozoic, he also considered plant remains from other regions of Germany, as well as from the rest of Europe and from overseas. Thus he demonstrated that in the Tertiary deposits of central Europe the Japanese ginkgo, the Chilean Libocedrus, and the North American yew occur side by side, and that in the Tertiary the vegetation of Java had the same tropical character it has today. Goeppert took a special interest in the amber of east Prussia and throughout his life studied the plants in it. As early as 1837, for example, he realized that a certain species of conifer must have produced the resin of the east Prussian amber.


I. Original Works. A complete bibliography up to 1882 is in Goeppert’s “Beiträge zur Pathologie und Morphologic fossiler Stämme,” in Palaeontographica, 28 (1882), 141-145. A complete bibliography is in Conwentz (see below).

Goeppert’s writings include “Die fossilen Farnkräuter,” in Nova acta Leopoldina, 17 (1836), 1-258; Die Gattungen der fossilen Pflanzen, vergliechen mit denen der Jetztwelt, 6 pts. (Bonn, 1841-1846); Die fossilen Coniferen, mit steter Berücksichtigung der lebenden (Haarlem-Leiden, 1850); Die fossile Flora der Permischen Formation (Kassel, 1864-1865); and Die Flora des Bernsteins und ihre Beziehungen zur Flora der Tertiärformation und der Gegenwart (Danzig, 1883) and Über das Gefrieren, Erfrieren der Pflanze und Schutzmittel dagegen (Stuttgart, 1883), both written with Menge.

II. Secondary Literature. See F. Cohn, “Heinrich Robert Göppert,” in Leopoldina, 20 (1884), 196-199, 211-214; H. Conwentz, “Heinrich Robert Goeppert, sein Leben und Wirken,” in Schriften der naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Danzig, n.s. 6 (1885), 253-285, with portrait, also in Leopoldina, 21 (1885), 135-139, 149-154; and K. Lambrecht and W. and A. Quenstedt, “Palaeontologi. Catalogus biobibliographicus,” in Fossilium catalogus, 72 (The Hague, 1938), 166.

Heinz Tobien