Gross, Walter Robert

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(b. Katlakaln, near Riga, Latvia, 20 August 1903; d. Tübingen, Germany, 9 June 1974)

vertebrate paleontology.

Both Gross and his work were profoundly influenced by the Baltic region, where he was born, The son of a country pastor, Erwin Gross, and his wife, Maria, he continued the Baltic-German tradition in natural sciences of Karl Ernst von Baer and especially the paleontological work of Christian Heinrich Pander. His interest in natural sciences was awakened by observing the surrounding plants and animals, specifically butterflies. His detailed observations went unpublished except in a posthumous work about his place of birth. While still in secondary school in Riga, Gross studied fossil fishes that he collected nearby. These studies set the course of his later scientific work. While at the University of Marburg, he decided to give up zoology and focus on vertebrate paleontology. Studies on antiarchs, a specialized group of armored fishes from the Devonian period, which Gross began during secondary school, became the subject of the dissertation for which he received the Ph.D. in 1931 from the University of Berlin.

During the next years Gross was supported by the Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft and produced many publications. His publications encompassed all agnathans and fishes from the Silurian and the Devonian found in deposits in the Baltic region and the Rhineland. He amazed his colleagues with an almost unbelievable ability to identify and correctly associate small remnants of these fishes. Following the advice of a colleague who had studied complete specimens of one genus, Gross added the latter’s corrections to paper in press (1936); today we know that his original determinations were correct and the corrections in error. All Gross’s publications demonstrate a considerable ability for detailed and correct description of a wide variety of agnathans and fishes. Perhaps his main contribution to paleontology was the descriptions of various representatives of the placoderms and their classification. Nevertheless, he preferred to take a broader approach and, when possible, to encompass the entire fish fauna where he worked.

Gross married Ursula Wolff, a scientific illustrator, in 1935; they had three children, Roland in 1937, Sabine in 1940, and Harro in 1943. He spent most of his career at the University of Berlin (after 1945 called Humboldt University) until 1961, but he also served as assistant and associate professor (1934– 1937) at the University of Frankfurt am Main. His work on the histology of bones of fossil amphibians and reptiles (1934) formed the basis for the work of de Riqles more than thirty years later.

Gross considered paleontology to be a biological science with additional dimensions in time and space (1960). To him paleontology represented the actual sequence of fossils—their true history—while biology allowed only the deduction of a hypothetical phylogeny or genealogy from recent forms. Biology always had priority for the explanation of processes. so Gross opposed special explanations for the evolutionary process derived from paleontology—concepts such as the macroevolution and typostrophism of Otto Heinrich Schindewolf (1943, 1956). He agreed that the rate of evolution varied over time and from one group to another, but he saw this as only an acceleration in time of processes acting in recent forms as well. Gross published on accelerated rates of evolution in what became known as his “rocket scheme” (1964). All supposedly large jumps in evolution (Schindewolf’s typogenesis) are artifacts of the theoretical framework of the supposer—he specifically attacked the “type” concept—while evolution progresses continuously by small steps.

Gross served in the German army during World War II and then was interned (1943–1949). During this time he compiled along paper on the origin of vertebrates, which opposed the generally accepted idea of their freshwater origin; he argued for a marine origin (1951, as in 1933) based on the fossil record. His views are generally accepted today. He returned to Humboldt University in 1949 and became director of the section of paleontology in 1950.

Gross seldom wrote general overviews or dealt extensively with subjects outside his main interest. An exception was his work on conodonts, initiated when he felt that prevailing opinion had strayed far from observable facts. He wrote three articles on the histology of conodonts (1954, 1957, 1960), microscopic forms first described by Pander. Conodonts were considered gill rakers of fishes at that time. Gross demonstrated through histology the impossibility of that interpretation and identified the then unknown conodont-bearing animal as a chordate of unknown systematic position. These papers became classics in the histology of conodonts. The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 stranded Gross and his family in West Germany; they were returning from a visit to a fossil excavation in southern Switzerland. He was left without his personal and scientific material and without property owned by his family. Nevertheless, Gross continued his productive scientific work as full professor and temporary director of the department of paleontology and geology at the University of Tübingen until his retirement in 1969.

After 1961 Gross concentrated more on the histology of scales and teeth and became a leader in the field of paleohistology. He described in detail the histology of teeth, dermal bones, and especially scales from different groups of fish and agnathans. His approach might be called histomorphology because he took into consideration the histological differences between hard tissues, but his interest focused on the arrangement and pattern of canals, growth lines, and cell spaces in these hard tissues. He demonstrated that these structures were valuable features that could be used for systematic and taxonomic determination of fossil fishes and agnathans. One of his most comprehensive and instructive papers on scales and their histology in agnathans and fishes was published in 1966.

Gross was a corresponding member of the Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft, Frankfurt am Main. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Munich and became an honorary member or the paläontologische Gesellschaft in 1972. Throughout his life he worked alone, but his influence was far-reaching, particularly in the Soviet Union, where studies similar to his continue today.


I. Original Works. A complete list of Gross’s papers is in Paläontologische Zeitschrift, 48 (1974), 148–148. They include “Die phylogenetische Bedeutung der altpaläozoischen Agnathen und Fische,” in Paläontologische Zeitschrift, 15 (1933), 102–137; “Die Typen des mikroskopischen Knochenbaues bei fossilen Stegocephalen und Reptilien,” in Zeitschrift für Anatomie und Entwicklungsgeschichte, 103 (1934), 731–764; “Neue Crossopterygier aus dem baltischen Oberdevon,” in Zentralblatt für Mineralogie, Geologie, und Paläontologie. Abt. B (1936), 69–78; “Paläontologische Hypothesen zur Faktorenfrage der Deszendenzlehre: Über die Typen-und Phasenlehre von Schindewolf und Beurlen,” in Die Naturwissenschaften, 31 (1943), 237–245; “Die paläontologische und stratigraphische Bedeutung der Wirbeltierfaunen des Old Reds und der marinen altpaläozoischen Schichtem,” in Abhandlungen der Deutschen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, math.-naturwiss. Kl., Jahrgang 1949 (1951), 1–130; “Zur Conodonten-Frage,” in Senckenbergiana lethaea, 35 (1954), 73–85;’ Über die’ Watsonsche Regel,” in Paläontologische Zeitschrift, 30 (1956), 30–40; “Über die Basis der Conodonten,” ibid., 31 (1957), 79–91;’ Üder die Basis be den Gattungen Palmatolepis und Polygnathus (Conodontida), ’ ibid., 34 (1960), 40–58;’ Über die Bedeutung der Paläontologie im Rahmen der Biologie, ’ in Forschen and Wirken. Festschrift zur 150–Jahr-Feir der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. II (Berlin, 1960), 297–308; “Polyphyletische Stämme im System der Wirbeltiere?” in Zoologischer Anzeiger, 1–22; “Kleine Schuppenkunde,” in Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie, Abhandlungen, 125 (1966), 29–48; “Christian Heinrich Pander 1794–1865 und seine Bedeutung für Geologie und Paläontologie,” in Münstersche Forschungen in Geologie und Paläontologie, no.19 (1971), 101–183, with P. Siegfried; and Kirchspiel und Pastorat Roop in Südlivland 1907–1917 (1974), i-iii, 1–58 (unpublished manuscript, 150 copies circulated).

II. Secondary Literature. Obituaries appeared in Attempto. Nachrichten für die Freunde der Universität Tübingen, nos. 51/52 (1974), 110–111; in Paläontologische Zeitschrift, 48 (1974), 143–148; and in News Bulletin of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, no. 102 (1974), 47. His evolutionary viewpoint is defended in Wolf-Ernst Reif. “The Search for a Macroevolutionary Theory in German Paleontology,” in Journal of the History of Biology, 19 (1986), see 199–120.

Hans-Peter Schultze