Häntzschel, Walter Helmut

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(b. Dresden, Germany, 16 Novermber 1904: d. Hamburg, Federal Republic of Germany. 10 May 1972)

geology, paleontology.

Häntzschel was the son of Theodor Johannes Häntzschel, headmaster at an elementary school, and to Minna Müller. After graduating from the Dresden Realgymnasium in 1924, Häntzschel enrolled at the Technical University of Dresden, where he studied mineralogy, geology, chemistry, botany, zoology, and geography. Upon completing his courses he received the state certificate for high school teachers. From 1930 to 1934 he taught at a local high school, and he received the doctorate with high honors in 1932. Two years later he became chief of the Forschungsanstalt für Meeresgeologie und Meerespaläontologie Senckenberg at Wilhelmshaven.

In 1938 Häntzschel was appointed curator of paleontology in the department of geology and paleontology of the State Museum for Mineralogy and Geology at Dresden. He was drafted in 1942 and served in an engineering unit. The Russians captured him in 1945, and he was a prisoner of war until 1948. After four months as an assistant at the Institute of Geology and Paleontology of the University of Halle, in 1949 Häntzschel became curator at the Geologisches Staatsinstitut in Hamburg. He remained there until he retired in 1969.

Häntzschel married Marianne Krausse on 23 May 1936; they had two daughters. He was a member of most German scientific societies. From 1963 until his death he edited Paläontologische Zeitschrift, and from 1950 until 1969 Mitteilungen aus dem Geologischen Staatsinstitut in Hamburg. In recognition of his scientific achievements, Häntzschel was awarded the title of honorary professor in 1964 by the University of Hamburg. In 1958 he was invited to attend the First International Conference on Salt Marshes at Sapelo Island, Georgia.

While still a student, and to a greater extent while a teacher, Häntzschel wrote a number of papers on paleontological and sedimentological topics. Most important was his doctoral dissertation. “Das Cenoman und die Plenus-zone der sudetischen Kreide” (The Cenomanian and the plenus-zone in the Cretaceous system of the Sudeten Mountains), which caused Rudolf Richter, director of the Institute of Geology at the University of Frankfurt, to offer him a position there. Shortly afterward. Häntzschel took over the Senckenberg am Meer research station at Wilhelmshaven, which was devoted to investigating marine geology and paleontology in the tidal flats of the North Sea.

The foundation of this station as an offshoot of the University of Frankfurt can be credited to the perspicacity of Richter, who realized the necessity to study geology and paleontology as and where it is in process. In 1928 hecoined the terms “actuogeology” and “actuopaleontology.” Häntzschel spent four years at the station, investigating what interested him most: sedimentary structures and trace fossils (Lebensspuren) in the making, and their relationship.

A less happy chapter in Häntzschel’s career started in 1938, with his appointment as curator in his home town of Dresden. Here he applied his actualistic understanding to the fossil outcrops. The war soon interrupted this activity, however and after six years he came back to find Dresden and the museum destroyed.

The Hamburg State Geological Institute, at which Häntzschel became a curator in 1949, also had been completely destroyed, so his and the entire staff’s energy went into the rebuildig of collections and library, teaching and administration. Nevertheless, Häntzschel managed to continue in his chosen field. His main area of concern was the same as it had been at Whilhelmshaven: how marine life came to be transformed into recognizable sedimentary structures (trace fossils). What are now known as trace fossilsformerly were mostly considered to be enigmatic “problematica” and described under numerous names, such as the overcrowded genus Fucoides, which was considered a kind of seaweed before it became evident that most of the fossils placed in that genus arisefrom sedimentary processes or by locomotion of various benthic organisms.

Häntzschel realized that these structures were not body fossils in the usual sense, although they were caused by organisms. Adolf Seilacher showed that they usually cannot be assigned to specific producers but to certain functions like “grazing” or “burrowing,” irrespective of the taxonomy of the individual producer. Häntzschel soon saw the necessity to review the existing knowledge of trace fossil morphology as well as of the various names previously given to them. He collected the widely scattered pertinent data from the literature, an immense task that, when published in 1962, made trace fossils accessible to further research and started a worldwide boom in trace fossils. It takes some direct experience with trace-fossil literature fully to acknowledge the accomplishment hidden in this book (and even more so in its second edition, which appeared after Häntzschel’s death). Another important book on trace fossils is Vestigia invertebratorum et problematica (1965).


I. Original Works. Among Häntzchel’s works are “Das Cenoman und die Plenus-zone der sudetischen Kreide,” in Abhandlungen der Preussischen Geologischen Landesanstalt, n.s. 150 (1933), his dissertation; “Trace Fossils and Problematica,” in Raymond C. Moore, ed., Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, pt. W (New York and lawrence, Kan., 1962), W177–W245, 2nd ed. (1975), W1–W269; and Vestigia invertebratorum et problematica. in F. Westphal, ed., Fossilium catalogus, I, Animalia. pt. 108 (The Hague, 1965).

II. Secondary Literature. On Häntzschel’s life and work, see Günther Hertweck, “Walter Häntzschel, ’in Paläontologische Zeitschrift, 46, no. 3/4 (1972), 105–112, with complete bibliography; U.Lehmann. “Walter Häntzschel; Ein Nachruf,” in Mitteilungen aus dem Geologisch-paläontologisches Institut Universität Hamburg, 41 (1972), 6–14, with a complete bibliography; and Adolf Seilacher, “Walter Häntzschel (1904–1972) and the Foundation of Modern Invertebrate Ichnology,” in Robert W.Frey, ed., The Study of Trace Fossils (New York, 1975), v-vii.

Ulrich Lehmann