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Richthofen, Ferdinand Von


(b. Karlsruhe, Silesia [now Poland], 5 May 1833; d. Berlin, Germany, 6 October 1905)

geology geomorphology geography.

Richthofen was the scion of a landed Silesian family. After completing his secondary education at the Catholic Gymnasium in Breslau (now Wroclaw), in 1850 he took up the study of geology at the university there and two years later went to the University of Berlin, where he graduated in 1856. The following year he joined a party of notable geologists, including C. W. Gümbel, on a geological tour of North Tirol and the Vorarlberg Alps. He was assigned the task of compiling the combined report and continuing the survey. Richthofen produced an admirable exposition of the Triassic succession in those areas. More important for Alpine geology was his independent publication. Geognostische Beschreibung der Umgegend von Predazzo … (1860), which, according to Zittel (1901, p. 476) “was greeted on its appearance with the highest recognition from all sides, and the author, who was little over twenty at the time, was looked upon as one of the first Alpine geologists.”

In this work Richthofen successfully elaborated upon the Triassic succession in the South Tirol and the conditions under which it was formed. In opposition to the more catastrophic concepts then prevalent, he attributed most of the changes in the form of the ground and the tectonic disturbances to slow crustal movements. He also attributed the dolomitic masses and some other parts of the Triassic limestones in the southern Alps to reef-building corals upon a slowly subsiding sea floor.

Richthofen, with the aid of the Austrian Imperial Geological Institute, extended his research to the trachytic mountain ranges of the Carpathians, particularly in Transylvania. In 1860 he served as geologist with a Prussian government mission to Southeast Asia and the Far East, where his travels included an overland journey from Bangkok to Moulmein. But little came of this mission—most of his notes and collected materials were lost. In June 1862 he left for California and stayed there for the next six years, working as a journalist for German newspapers to which he reported on the mineral wealth and gold strikes (including the Comstock Lode). In the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada he recognized a definite sequence of igneous rocks—from propylite to trachyte and basalt—that was later confirmed by American geologists. In September 1868, four years after the Taiping Rebellion, he was able to realize his chief ambition and visit China. His trip was financed first by the Bank of California and later by the Chamber of Commerce of Shanghai in return for reports in English on the economic resources of the areas he visited. By May 1872 he had made seven long journeys and had traversed every province of the Chinese Empire, except Kansu and Yunnan. His reports, published as Letters on China (Shanghai, 1870–1872), gave the first indications of the importance of the Shantung coalfield and emphasized the commercial potential of Tsingtao, a port later occupied by the Germans.

In 1872 Richthofen returned to Germany and spent the next thirty-three years mainly in writing and lecturing on China and promoting the study of geography in German universities. His written accounts of China, under the liberal patronage of the government, were planned on a monumental scale; but they progressed slowly because of his numerous academic commitments. He was president of the Gesellschaft für Erdkunde in Berlin from 1873 until his death. In 1875 he was elected professor of geology at the University of Bonn but delayed assuming the duties for four years while he compiled the first and part of a second volume on China.

In 1883 Richthofen received the chair of geography at Leipzig; his inaugural address was “Aufgaben und Methoden der heutigen Geographie.” In 1886 he was persuaded to return to Berlin as professor of geography, and he held this post until he died suddenly of a stroke. In his later years he almost completed the establishment of the Museum für Meereskunde at the University of Berlin (it was finished by his successor, Albrecht Penck) and acted as rector of the university in 1903, when he delivered a notable address entitled “Triebkräfte und Richtungen der Erdkunde im neunzehnten Jahrhundert.”

Richthofen’s chief contributions were to Alpine stratigraphy; the geology and geography of China; geomorphology; and geographical methodology. The first volume of his monumental China: Ergebnisse eigener Reisen und darauf gegründeter Studien appeared in 1877. It dealt largely with the morphology and geology of Inner Asia and China and their influence on the movements of peoples. The next parts, published between 1882 and 1885, discussed North China and were based mainly on Richthofen’s field observations and collections. They included special analyses by August Schenk of the fossil floras and an atlas of twenty-seven hypsographical and twenty-seven geological maps compiled largely from fieldwork and instrumental (aneroid) measurements. Richthofen concluded that the planes of unconformity in the rock series in China were due to marine abrasion on a subsiding landmass. He also described the masses of loess, which he attributed to subaerial deposition by wind, except in some localities where a “lake loess” indicated an association with water. When Richthofen died, the volume on southern China and the second part of the atlas were unfinished; but the text was completed from his copious notes by Ernst Tiessen and the maps were completed by Max Croll. These works were published in 1912 at the expense of the Prussian Kulturministèrium. Tiessen also edited a full summary of the original notebooks, with a selection of the many admirable field sketches of people and landscapes, in Ferdinand von Richthofen’s Tagebücher aus China.

Richthofen’s geomorphological studies formed part of his geology and the fundamental basis of his geography. In 1875 he contributed a paper on geology to G. von Neumayer’s Anleitung zu Wissenschaftlichen Beobachtungen auf Reisen. In 1886 he published a greatly enlarged version of this paper under the somewhat too comprehensive title Führer für For schungsreisende. The first part of this guide deals with the techniques of field location and observation. The second part discusses at length the interrelationships of geology and surface forms, with considerable detail given to the physical processes involved. The final part contains accounts of soils, rocks, and mountain structures and classifies the main kinds of landforms (Bodenplastik) according to the process or dominant process in their formation. Thus the genetic aspect predominates, and external forms are used as subclassificatory indices only where unavoidable. The text is illustrated by more than 100 small line blocks and in its classification of material and approach was the first truly successful compilation of genetic geomorphology. It immediately became the standard work in Germany for the systematic treatment of landforms and strongly influenced Albrecht Penck’s Morphologie der Erdoberfläche.

Besides his large additions to the factual knowledge of China and elsewhere, Richthofen made outstanding contributions to geographical methodology and to the advancement of geography as an autonomous science. From about 1875 he devoted most of his time to geographical matters and took an interest in all branches of the discipline, although his geological training led him to emphasize the influence of the nature of the land surface upon its inhabitants. Richthofen believed that geography was concerned with the causal interrelationships of all formations and phenomena related to the surface of the earth (that is, Erdoberflächenkunde, rather than the more Comprehensive Erdkunde, or earth science). It was a science based on field observations and measurements and was always concerned with the assembly of spatial distributions upon a physical background. The method of geographical investigation, however, varied with the scale of the project and aim of the prospector. There were two main fields of geography: special and general. Special geography was descriptive and synthetic and itself fell into two categories: chorography and chorology. Chorography comprised the encyclopaedic registering, within the confines of any area (Erdraum), of the systematic assembly of the phenomena and features belonging to the six realms of nature: land, water, atmosphere, plants, animals, and man. Analysis was not required except to divide the whole or the bigger areas into smaller components or unit areas. Chorology, although descriptive, went beyond chorography because it tried to explain the areal distribution of phenomena by studying their causal and dynamic (spatial) relationships.

The chorological method of special geography led to the second main field of geography—general geography, which dealt primarily with the general study of earthbound phenomena in an abstract or analytical way. It proceeded from the particular to the general and examined phenomena from four points of view or principles: morphology; material nature; dynamic or spatial interconnections; and development (forces and causes of change). Each of these principles would provide a distinctive aspect of general geography, while the last, or genetic, principle would serve to interpret the other three. But Richthofen preferred to apply all four aspects to the study of the six realms of nature. Thereby he brought the analytical approach into closer relationship with chorological studies and unified the numerous branches of geography within a broad physical framework. His scheme, however, was obviously two-sided; and while many of his disciples analyzed spatial arrangements of phenomena on a wide scale, others carried out research in depth on small areas.

Richthofen is generally regarded by geologists today as a stratigrapher who became the “Prince of Forschungsreisende.” Geographers and geomorphologists rightly acclaim him as one of the greatest forces in the modern development of their disciplines. Many of his students and followers held important chairs in geography in central Europe until the mid-1930’s.


1. Orignal Works. Richthofen’s major works are “Die Kalkalpen von Vorarlberg und Nordtirol,” in Jahrbuch der Geologischen Reichsanstalt, 10 (1859–1861); Geognostische Beschreibung der Umgegend von Predazzo … (Gotha, 1860); “Die Metall-Produktion Californiens und der Angrenzenden Lander,” in Petermanns Mitteilungen, Supp. 3 , no. 14 (1864); Natural System of Volcanic Rocks (San Francisco, 1867); Letters on China (Shanghai, 1870–1872, repr. 1900); and China: Ergebnisse eigener Reisen und darauf gegründeter Studien, 3 vols.—I (Berlin, 1877); II (1882–1885), which is pt. 3 (1882), on North China; pt. 4 (1883), on paleontology; and atlas (1885); III (1912), E. Tiessen, ed. The work has been reprinted (Graz, 1968–1969).

Subsequent works include Aufgaben und Methoden der heutigen Geographie (Leipzig, 1883), his inaugural address; Führer für Forschungsreisende (Berlin, 1886); “Geomorphologische Studien aus Ostasien,” in Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin. Phys.-math. Klasse, 11 (1900), 888–925; 36 (1901), 782–808; 38 (1902), 944–975; 40 (1903), 867–918; Triebkräfte und Richnurgen der Erdkunde im neunzehnter Jahrhundert (Berlin, 1903), his rectorial address; Ferdinand von Richthofen’s Tagebücher aus China, E. Tiessen, ed., 2 vols. (Berlin, 1907); and Mitteilungen des Ferdinand von Richthofen, E. Tiessen, ed. (Berlin, 1912).

II. Secondary Literature. The Festschrift (Berlin, 1893) presented to Richthofen on his sixtieth birthday lacks a bibliography. On Richthofen and his work, see E. von Drygalski, “Von Richthofen und die deutsche Geographie,” in Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin (1933), 88–97; A. Hettner, “Ferdinand von Richthofens Bedeutung für die Geographic,” in Geographische Zeitschrift, 12 (1906), 1–11; A. Penck, “Richthofens Bedeutung für die Geographie,” in Berliner geographische Arbeiten, no. 5 (1933), 1–17, and Deutsche Rundschau, 225 (Nov. 1930), 154–157; E. G. Ravenstein, “Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen,” in Geographical Journal, 26 (1905), 679–682; G. Wegener and H. von Wissmann, “Ferdinand von Richthofen,” in Die Grossen Deutschen, V (Berlin, 1935–1936), 390–398; and Karl von Zittel, History of Geology and Palaeontology, M. M. Ogilvie-Gordon, trans. (London, 1901), passim.

Robert P. Beckinsale

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