Rutten, Martin Gerard

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(b. Java, Dutch East Indies [now Indonesia], 22 October 1910; d. Utrecht, Netherlands, 13 October 1970)


Rutten was the son of Louis Martin Robert Rutten, a geologist, and Catharina Johanna Pekelharing, a biologist. His father, a consultant to the burgeoning oil industry, took his family to various parts of the East Indies and South America until, in 1922, he was appointed professor of geology at the University of Utrecht. Young Martin was taught by his father and, like him, became an all-round geologist and naturalist.

Rutten’s health was never robust, yet he loved field work and the outdoor life, and was an active conservationist long before it became fashionable. In the early 1930’s, while still a student, he participated in several expeditions to the Caribbean that resulted in a series of papers and his Ph.D. dissertation (1938), Before receiving the Ph.D. he had taken a job with the Royal Dutch Oil Company and gone to work as a field geologist in Java and Sumatra, where he remained until 1940. This reinforced his early interest in the taxonomy and evolution of foraminifera.

Rutten was in Holland when the Germans invaded and occupied the country in 1940, and he was prevented from returning to the East Indies. He therefore joined the Geological Office of Mining in the Dutch coal district. After the war he taught stratigraphy and paleontology at the University of Amsterdam. When the chair of general geology at Utrecht—which his father had held until his death in 1946—became vacant. Rutten was appointed to it (1951).

Thus began the final and most fruitful part of his career. Geology was expanding rapidly in new directions, and Rutten kept abreast of them. His professional contacts were cosmopolitan. Most of his 120 publications are brief and in clear and simple language, whether he was writing in Dutch, English, French, German, or Spanish.

Rutten upheld and expanded the validity of actualism, holding that natural causes are immutable but their manifestations depend on circumstances that have changed, either cyclically or irreversibly, because of these very causes. For example, some common types of epicontinental sediment—such as chalk with flints or phosphate beds deposited in shallow shelf seas—are formed seldom or not at all today. Rutten argued that recent shelves, scarred by glaciations and changes of sea level, offer no analogy for periods when deeply peneplained continents contributed mostly dissolved, instead of clastic, material to the broad, flat shelves surrounding them. Likewise, he showed that enigmatic tuff breccias on Iceland were caused by eruptions below a thick Pleistocene ice cap. He established criteria for the distinction of ignimbrites (fluidized hot ash flows) from lava flows and airborne tuffs, and showed the former to have been frequent and extensive.

Rutten was among the first geologists to recognize the possibilities of paleomagnetism (the study of the weak remanent magnetization induced by Earth’s field in rocks at the time of formation), and he promoted the foundation of a still prominent special laboratory at Utrecht. Measuring the remanent magnetic vector in rocks of various localities and ages reveals the former position and orientation of the shifting crustal plates, and reversals of polarity provide time markers for stratigraphy. On all these topics, he supervised Ph.D. dissertations in addition to his own writings.

Rutten’s greatest interest was evolution and the origin of life. His inaugural address at Utrecht was titled “Actualism and Evolution” (1951). Inspired by the Russian biochemist A. I. Oparin (who postulated that life could have arisen from inorganic matter only in a virtually oxygen-free atmosphere, and that molecular oxygen was a later, biogenic product), Rutten considered the geological implications of these ideas. For example, unoxidized grains of pyrite and uraninite in ancient sandstones like the Witwatersrand, and banded silicate iron ores like those of Lake Superior, occur in various places, but all are older than 1,800 billion years. On the other hand, strongly oxidized deposits like red beds and minette iron ores are all younger than 1,400 billion years. However, the oldest undoubted fossils are more than 2 billion years; doubtful ones are 3 billion years old. So, as Rutten argued in his influential book The Geological Aspects of the Origin of Life on Earth (1962), the geological record confirms that life came first and free oxygen second.

Rutten twice spent a year at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor as a visiting professor (1957 1958, 1966-1967). He noticed that the literature on the geology of Europe, scattered and in various languages, was not easily accessible overseas. He therefore wrote an important and lucid book, The Geology of Western Europe (1969), giving copious references to, and illustrations from, the original publications.

In 1967, during his second stay at the University of Michigan, Rutten suffered a near-fatal rupture of the aorta; he knew he would not live much longer. Confined to his desk, he wrote a last comprehensive book on his favorite topic, The Origin of Life by Natural Causes. He was completing the manuscript when he died suddenly; the book appeared in 1971.

Rutten was married twice: to T. Kooistra, with whom he had three children, and after their divorce, to H. C. van Berghem, with whom he had one child.


For a complete list of Rutten’s writings, see A. A. Thiadens, “In Memoriam Prof. Dr. M. G. Rutten,” in Geologie en mijnbouw, 49 , no. 6 (1970), 433-438. Rutten’s three most important books are The Geological Aspects of the Origin of Life on Earth (Amsterdam and New York, 1962); The Geology of Western Europe (Amsterdam and New York, 1969); and The Origin of Life by Natural Causes (Amsterdam, London, and New York, 1971).

E. Ten Haaf