Helmersen, Grigory Petrovich

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Helmersen, Grigory Petrovich

(b Duckershof, Latvia, 29 September 1803; d. St. Petersburg, Russia, 15 February 1885)


After graduating from the University of Dorpat in 1825 with a Master of Sciences degree, Helmersen attended lectures in 1835–1838 at the Mining Institute in St. Petersburg and obtained a post there as professor of geognosy. He held this position for twenty-five years, serving simultaneously as class inspector and curator of the institute’s museum. From 1865 to 1872 he was director of the institute. Working all his life within the Mining Department, Helmersen achieved the rank of lieutenant general in the Corps of Mining Engineers. In 1844 he was elected adjunct member, in 1847 associate member, and in 1850 full member of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. He was one of the organizers of the Geological Committee of Russia and its first director (1882).

Helmersen’s scientific researches were connected mainly with regional geological investigations and were undertaken in the Urals, the Altai, central Asia, the Baltic provinces, and a number of regions of central and southern Russia. His first investigations were a study of the gold-bearing areas of the central Urals and of the geological structure of the southern part of this mountain range. The years 1830–1832 were spent abroad; Helmersen studied paleontology in several German universities and visited Austria and northern Italy. On his return he continued his work in the Urals and, somewhat later, in the Altai. In 1838–1839 Helmersen studied deposits of combustible shales in Estonia, establishing their age on the basis of their paleontological remains and investigating the possibilities of their distillation.

Helmersen devoted much attention to the study of the geological structure and mineral reserves of the central portion of European Russia, where he worked for nearly forty years. He studied coal deposits and accumulations of sedimentary iron ores of the Moscow basin. He also investigated coal deposits in the Kiev, Kherson, and Grodno guberniyas, and in the Donets and Dabrowa Gornicza coal basins. Some of his papers dealt with the geological structure of mud volcanoes and oil seeps on the Kerch and Taman peninsulas.

Helmersen played a major role in the development of geological mapping in Russia. In 1841 he compiled and published a geological map of European Russia, on a scale of thirty miles to the inch, showing the distribution of deposits belonging to different geological systems. Although very schematic, it was the first to give some idea of the location of major structures within the Russian Platform and to show Upper Paleozoic variegated deposits as an independent stratigraphic unit. In his explanatory note to the map Helmersen calls them “Permian sandstone.” On his visit to Russia, Murchison designated these deposits as a new system between the Carboniferous and the New Red Sandstone: the Permian system. In 1842 this map was awarded the Demidoff Prize by the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.

In 1846 Helmersen compiled a map of goldfields in eastern Siberia. On the basis of previously unknown data he substantially changed and supplemented the geological map of European Russia and of the Urals published by Murchison in 1845, publishing fundamentally new versions in 1865 and 1873. A prominent coal geologist, Helmersen was very familiar with the coal deposits of Russia and Poland. In the 1860’s he directed the compilation of the first stratigraphic map of the Donets Basin. He was also interested in Quaternary glaciation and studied its traces in northern Russia and Finland. In 1857 he published an interesting paper on the origin of giant glacial kettle holes in Scandinavia.

A regular watcher of the development of theoretical concepts in natural history, in 1860 Helmersen suggested that the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg organize extensive paleontological research to establish which of two theories—evolution or creationism—is confirmed by geological findings. He appears to have favored evolution.

Helmersen, who published more than 130 papers, was very highly regarded in geological circles and was elected a member of numerous scientific societies in various countries. In 1879, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of his scientific career, the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg instituted a prize named for Helmersen. No longer given, it was awarded for outstanding research in geology, paleontology, and geography of Russia and adjacent countries.


Helmersen’s most important papers are “Explanatory Notes to a General Map of Rock Formations in European Russia.” in Gornyl zhurnal, no. 4, pt. 2 (1841), pp. 29–68, with map, in Russian; “Das Olonetzer Bergrevier, geologisch untersucht in den Jahren 1856, 1857,1858 and 1859.” in Mémoirés de l’Académie impériale des sciences de St.-Pétersbourg, 7th ser., 3 . no. 6 (1860,), 1–33. with map: “Chudskoe Lake and the Upstream Regions of the Narva River,” in Zapiski Imperatorskoi akademii hauk. 7 , no, 2 (1865). 1–85, in Russian; and “Das Vorkommen and die Entstehung der Riesenkessel in Finnland,” in Mémoirés de l’Académie impériale des sciences de st.-Pétersburg,, 7th ser., 11 . no. 12 (1867). 1–13. with map.

A secondary source is F. Schmidt, “Gregor von Helmersen,” in Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Paläontologie, 2 (1885), 1–4.

V. V. Tikhomirov