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Richter, Rudolf


(b. Glatz, Silesia, Prussia, 7 November 1881; d. Frankfurt, Germany, 5 January 1957) geology, paleontology, ichnology, sedimentology, taxonomy.

Richter was considered one of the most influential geologists of the early twentieth century. He founded the Senckenberg Vorschungstelle für Meeresgeologie und Meerespaläontologie (Senckenberg Research Station for Marine Geology and Paleontology) at Wilhelmshaven, Germany, which was subsequently known as Senckenberg am Meer (Senckenberg by the Sea). It was the first institution founded with the specific aim of actively applying the actualistic concepts of Charles Lyell, following the principle “the present is the key to the past.” Richter can be considered a founder of actuogeology. He laid important groundwork for modern approaches to sedimentology, stratigraphy, and ichnology.

Early Life Rudolf Richter was born on 7 November 1881 at Glatz in Silesia. His father was a well-respected medical doctor. Richter studied at the universities of Munich and Marburg and changed his law studies for geology in 1904 after a field excursion with the famous geologist Emanuel Kayser to the Devonian strata in the Eifel area of Germany. Richter completed his doctorate under the supervision of Kayser at Marburg in 1909; his doctoral dissertation was published under the title “Beitraege zur Kenntnis devonischer Trilobiten aus dem Rheinischen Schiefergebirge” (Contributions to the knowledge of Devonian trilobites from the Rheinische Schiefergebirge). Richter’s influence reached far beyond the boundaries of Germany.

After leaving Marburg, Richter earned his living as a high school teacher (Lehrer an Einer Schule für Schüler Zwischen) in Frankfurt at the Liebig Senior High School (Liebig Oberscule) while carrying out his scientific work in his spare time. In 1908 he joined the Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft (Senckenberg Naturalist Society) and in 1919 he launched the journal Senckenbergiana to mark the centenary of the society. Richter was editor of that journal until his death in 1957. He also edited its popular magazine Natur und Museum (Nature and the museum), changing the name of the journal in 1931 to Natur und Volk (Nature and the people) to reflect his desire to make science accessible to the people. This was a theme that Richter followed throughout his tenure at the Senckenberg Naturalist Society. He was a popularizer of natural history and felt that it was the responsibility of scientists to educate the populace in any way they could, including museum displays, field trips, and popular publications. In 1920 Richter was appointed privatdozent (assistant professor) in geology and paleontology at the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe University in Frankfurt; in 1925 he became extraordinary professor, and in 1934 ordinary professor and director of the Geological and Paleontological Institute at the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe University, a position he held until his retirement in 1949. In 1932 Richter took control of the Senckenberg Naturalist Society and in 1933 was named its Leiter (director). In the latter year he also assumed the duties of directorship of the Natur-Museum at Frankfurt.

In 1913 Richter married Emma Hüther, and they enjoyed a remarkable collaboration. She was a skilled artist and was invaluable in their joint work on trilobites and on a series of ichnological papers. During their married life, spanning more than forty years, they wrote seventy coauthored publications. Their papers on animal-sediment relationships were fundamental in establishing basic principles on how organisms affect the substrate. This ichnological work also established the zoological affinities of many trace fossils and became the cornerstone for further work in actuopaleontology and actuoichnology. Emma was not only a wife and trusted colleague, she also assumed Rudolf’s duties when he was indisposed. During World War I, Rudolf served as an officer on the front and Emma assumed his duties at the museum. Likewise, she assumed his duties when he was interned in Romania in 1945–1946, just after the World War II. Emma died a few months before Rudolf on 15 November 1956.

Senckenberg am Meer In 1929, with the support of the Senckenberg Society and the German navy, Richter established the Senckenberg Forschungstelle für Meeresgeologie und Meerespaläontologie (Senckenberg Research Station for Marine Geology and Paleontology) at Wilhelmshaven, which was subsequently known as Senckenberg am Meer (Senckenberg by the Sea).The institute is housed in a building named after him, the Rudolf Richter Haus. Richter’s interest in the modern marine environment was apparent as early as 1920, when he gave an inaugural lecture at Frankfurt University titled “Die Erscheinungen des Wattenmeers in ihrer Bedeutung für die Geologie” (The manifestations of the Wadden Sea and their significance for geology). The station was founded with the specific aim of studying animal-sediment relationships in the intertidal environment in the Wadden Sea. It was the first institution founded with the specific aim of actively applying the actualistic concepts of Charles Lyell, following the principle “the present is the key to the past.” The Wadden Sea has been the enormously successful hunting grounds of well-known Senckenbergian researchers such as Walther Häntzschel, Wilhelm Schäfer, and Hans-Erich Reineck. It was instrumental in establishing Germany as the home of ichnological research and shallow-water, marine sedimentology. The Senckenberg laboratory has been used as the model for other facilities around the world, including the Sapelo Island Marine Institute in Georgia in the United States. In fact, these two institutes had very close ties in the 1970s and jointly researched the sedimentology and animal-sediment relationships of modern shoreface and estuarine environments. In the early twenty-first century, the station houses the Marine Science Division of the Senckenberg Institute and the legacy of excellence left by Richter, Häntzschel, Schäfer, and Reineck continues.

Actualistic Paleontology Richter wrote two key papers in 1928, one on the new field station (Senckenberg am Meer) and a second on the new discipline of Aktuopaläontologie, the science of the formation of paleontological objects in the present that are potentially able to become fossil. The new field of study was to consist of three parts: research on traces, “death and embedding,” and biofacies. Richter envisaged this work as the “science that brings stones to life.” Although this new science was not immediately embraced outside of Germany, it became the cornerstone for direct applications to the petroleum exploration boom during the post–World War II economic boom. In the United States, oil and gas exploration was accompanied by an academic interest in modern-day environments and depositional processes. Major petroleum companies spent millions of dollars to establish research programs studying modern, shallow-water, depositional systems. These studies then served as modern analogues for the interpretation of petroleum-bearing reservoirs throughout the world.

World War II World War II was a time of great upheaval for both Richter and the Senckenberg laboratory. During the war, Richter took great pains in moving both the museum collections and the extensive Senckenberg library, consisting of some two million volumes, out of the institute to safer areas. In 1943 Richter packed the scientific collections onto two hundred trucks and evacuated them to remote storage depots. This saved most of the holdings from the destruction of the war. Richter also tried to keep the institute safe and the scientists from being conscripted by proposing that research at Senckenberg was essential for work in petroleum and geology. It was concerning petroleum activities that Richter traveled to Romania in 1945. Upon his arrival in Bucharest, he was arrested and interned at the German Embassy because he was a German official. Richter endured immense privation, illness, and malnutrition in the internment camp in Romania and was not freed until 1946. He resumed his duties as a professor in 1947 and continued to supervise graduate students and carry out basic research. Richter was instrumental in resurrecting the Paläontologische Gesellschaft (Paleontology Society).

Publications and Honors Richter’s productivity was prodigious; he published approximately 291 titles, encompassing a wide variety of subjects, including ichnology, trilobite research, Devonian paleogeography, biostratigraphy, micropaleontology, taxonomy and systematics, paleoecology, and constructive morphology. His work was instrumental in establishing the Senckenberg laboratory as the center for actuogeologic and actuopaleontologic studies. Richter was an advocate and interpreter of the international rules of taxonomy and in 1930 was voted onto the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature. For the next twenty years he worked tirelessly in the verification of types, the development of archival techniques, and the production of collection catalogs.

Richter received many honors. He became an external or corresponding member of the National Research Council of the United States (1929), the Institut royal des Sciences naturelles de Belgique (1930), the Geological Society of London (1950), the Academica delle Scienze in Bologna (1953), and the Instituto de Investigaciones Geológicas “Lucas Mallada” in Madrid (1953). Richter was served as president of the International Union of Paleontology from 1933 to 1937. He was named an honorary member of the Palaeontological Society of America (1926), the International Congress of Geologists in Moscow (1937), and the Société belge de Géologie, de Paléontologie, et d’Hydrologie (1938). He received medals of honor from the Senckenberg Naturalist Society (1951) and also received the Gold Medal of the Paläontologische Gesellschaft (1951) and the Hans Stille Medal given by the Deutsche Geologische Gesellschaft (1951). To celebrate his seventieth birthday, former students and friends put together a special Festschrift volume, published by the Senckenberg Naturalist Society. Rudolf Richter passed away at Frankfurt on 5 January 1957, a few weeks after his wife Emma. At the end he was totally paralyzed but still managed to work with the help of his students and colleagues.


A complete bibliography of Richter’s published works can be found in Herta Schmidt, “Rudolf Richter (1881–1957) in seinen Worten,” Aufsätze Reden Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft 32 (1982): 1–95. Archives reside at the Senckenberg Institute.


“Beiträge zur Kenntnis devonischer Trilobiten. I. Dechenella und einige verwandte Formen.” Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft Abhandlungen 31 (1912): 239–340.

With Emma Richter. “Die Lichadiden des Eifler Devons.” Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie, und Paläontologie (1917): 5–72.

“Von Bau und Leben der Trilobiten. I. Das Schwimmen.” Senckenbergiana 1 (1919): 213–238.

Scolithus, Sabellarifex, und Geflechtquartzite.” Senckenbergiana 3 (1921): 49–52.

“Flachseebeobachtungen zur Paläontologie und Geologie. VII–XI.” Senckenbergiana 6 (1924): 119–165.

“Aktuopaläontologie un Paläobiologie, eine Abgrenzung.” Senckenbergiana 10 (1928): 285–292.

With Emma Richter. Trilobitae neodevonici. Fossilium Catalogus, I, Animalia, Pars 37. Berlin: Junk, 1928.

“Tierwelt und Umwelt im Hunsrückschiefer; zur Entstehung eines schwarzen Schlammsteins.” Senckenbergiana 13 (1931): 299–342.

“Marken und Spuren im Hunsrückschiefer. I. Gefliess-Marken.” Senckenbergiana 17 (1935): 244–263.

With Emma Richter. “Unterlagen zum Fossilium Catalogus, Trilobitae. VII. Kulm-Trilobiten von Aprath und Herborn.” Senckenbergiana 19 (1937): 108–115.

“Der nomenklatorische Typus.” Zeitschrift Deutsche Geologische Gesellschaft 95 (1942): 362–371.

“Taxiologie und Paläotaxiologie zwischen Psychologie und Physiologie.” Senckenbergiana lethaea 36 (1955): 401–407.


Flemming, Burghard W. “75 Jahre Senckenberg am Meer: Aktualismus als Forschungsprinzip.” Natur und Museum 134 (2004): 1–20.

Kegel, W. “Nachruf für Rudolf Richter–Emma Richter.” Zeitschrift Deutsche Geologische Gesellschaft 110 (1957): 637–642.

Lewis, Ronald D. “Rudolf Richter and Today’s Actualistic Paleontology.” Geological Society of America Abstracts with Program s 35, no. 6 (2003): 206.

Pemberton, S. George. “Rudolf Richter and the Senckenberg Laboratory.” In Encyclopedia of Sediments and Sedimentary Rocks, edited by G. V. Middleton. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003.

Schmidt, Herta. “Rudolf Richter (1881–1957) in seinen Worten.” Aufsätze Reden Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft 32 (1982): 1–95.

Simon, Wilhelm. “Rudolf und Emma Richter.” Paläontologische Zeitschrift 31 (1957): 111–115.

Stubblefield, C. J. “Rudolf Richter.” Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 1554 (1957): 137–138.

Ziegler, Willi. “Rudolf Richter 1881–1957.” Jahre Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft, Jubiläumsband 1. Frankfurt am Main: Kramer, 1992.

S. George Pemberton

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