Schäfer, Wilhelm

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(b. Crumstadt, Hesse, Germany, 18 March 1912; d. Frankfurt am Main, Federal Republic of Germany, 27 July 1981)

biology, paleontology.

The son of a liberal-minded Protestant parson, Wilhelm Schäfer, and his wife, Elizabeth, Schäfer spent his youth in the small Hessian town of Oppenheim am Rhine. From 1927 to 1931 he attended secondary school at Mainz. The lessons attracted him less than the animal life in the wooded meadows along the river. After passing the Abitur, he enrolled at Giessen University to study zoology, botany, geography, art history, philosophy, and pedagogy. He received a doctorate in zoology in 1937 with the dissertation “Bau, Entwicklung and Farbentstehung bei den Flitterzellen von Sepia officinalis.” His advisers were W. J. Schmidt and W. E. Ankel.

Schäfer then worked at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, which was directed by Rudolf Richter. In May 1938 Schäfer was named director of the branch institute at Wilhelmshaven, Senckenberg am Meer. This institute, founded by the Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft in 1928, had as its purpose the investigation of how the sediments of shallows are formed and how living forms leave traces in developing sediments (actuogeology, actuopaleontology). It proved the actualistic principle of geopaleontological research: understanding and interpreting stratified rocks and the fossils contained in them by means of a thorough knowledge of their origins. The shallows of the subsiding North German coastline and the chain of islands offshore presented ideal opportunities for observations that could be related to fossil sediments.

In May 1939 Schäfer married the zoologist Dr. Elisabeth (Lisel) Götze, daughter of a Giessen University professor; they had four children. He soon turned his attention to marine zoological research and enlarged the range of Senckenberg am Meer through his observations as an expert in biology. Between 1938 and 1943 he published papers on sedimentological and biological topics in Senckenbergiana and other periodicals.

Schäfer was drafted for military service in 1939. He returned to a totally destroyed Wilhelmshaven Institute in 1947 and immediately started its reconstruction. Although he received no financial aid from the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, by 1953 he could report that a new institute building was being completed and that research work had fully resumed. In his first postwar publication he observed and described the destruction by sinking of the Oberahn fields, the last remnants of a marshy island that remained after the North Sea formed Jade Bay in the fifteenth century. He also observed and described the formation of the island of Mellum from quicksands, the forms of destruction and re-formation during this process, and changes in the flora and fauna during those processes.

For years he had done research on the life of Brachyura, and with a treatise on the multiform and multifunctional Brachyura claws, he qualified in 1954 as a university teacher at Frankfurt. He collected and published much additional information on processes of marine biology and biology-actuopaleontology, and also dealt with shallow-water sedimentation processes, especially with tidal currents and rough seas. Among his co-workers were Konrad Lüders, an expert in shipping matters, and, from 1954. Hans-Erich Reineck, a sedimentologist. In 1962 Schäfer summarized the results of his research on the shallows in Aktuo-Paläontologie nach Studien in der Nordsee, illustrated with his own drawings. It concludes with a characterization of the essential features and of the change of biocenoses, and a systematics of biofacies, so important for the comparison of fossil sediments.

In 1961 Schäfer was appointed director of the Senckenberg Natural History Museum and Research Institute at Frankfurt. He began to remodel both, which had been destroyed during the war. In this capacity he was in charge of 140 workers and had a budget of eleven million marks, putting his artistic and didactic capacities to good use. He sought to restore the classical architecture of the old museum as well as to establish the primacy of the excellent paleontological exhibits, which were characterized by large graphic and sculptural works, as well as intelligible captions. At a time of increasingly abstract science, he revolutionized scientific illustration after having given, in Das wissenschaftliche Tierbild (1949), a fascinating account of zoological illustration as a mirror of the current state of knowledge. In numerous articles he dealt with the functions of a natural history museum and with questions of museology. Despite his heavy schedule, Schäfer found time to travel. In 1963 he visited the Gulf of Naples. This led to another Senckenberg branch station on the island of Ischia. In 1964 and 1965 Schäfer was a member of the first Meteor expedition and did research on the reefs of the coral island of Sarso in the Red Sea.

Schäfer retired in 1978, and during his last years became deeply alarmed by the disturbed balance of the environment, made intensive studies of the endangered ecology of the Upper Rhine, along which he had grown up, and proposed regenerative measures for the river and the land along its banks. His last book, Fossilien Bilder und Gedanken, zur Paläontologischen Wissenschaft (1980), tries to elucidate paleontology and to render transparent its relation to adjacent sciences and the totality of human knowledge and culture by reference to many related historical and philosophical aspects. Paleontology, according to Schäfer, can be of use to man in so far as “he can see himself as part of this organic world, of its environments and of its historicity, with which man is inescapably intertwined and show respect to this earth with all it living creatures. . . . What paleontology can tell him hits the center of all problems of our present world.”


I. Original Works. Schäfer’s works include “Bau, Entwicklung and Farbentstehung bei den Flitterzellen von Sepia officinalis,” in Z. Zellforsch, u. microskop. Anatomie, 27 (1937), 221-245; “Fossile und rezente Bohr-muschel-Besiedlung des Jadegebietes,” in Senckenbergiana, 21 (1939), 227-254; “Zum Untergang der Oberahneschen Felder im Jadebusen,” ibid., 25 (1948), 1-15; Das wissenschaftliche Tierbild (Frankfurt, 1949; 2nd enl. ed. 1951); “25 Jahre Forschungsanstalt für Meeresgeologie und Meeresbiologie ‘Senckenberg’ in Wilhelmshaven,” in Natur. u. Volk, 83 (1953), 245-254; “Form und Funktion der Brachyuren-Schere,” Abhandlungen der Senckenbergischen natlurforscbenden Gesellschaft, no. 489 (1954), 1-65; “Mellum: Inselentwicklung und Biotopwandel,” in Abh. naturwiss. Ver. Bremen, 33 (1954), 391-406; “Fossilisations-Bedingungen der Meeressäuger und Vögel,” in Senckenbergiana leth., 37 (1955), 1-25; “Gesteinsbildung im Flachseebecken, am Beispiel der Jade,” in Geologische Rundschau, 45 (1956), 71-84; “Der kritische Raum und die kritische Situation in der tierischen Sozietät,” in Aufsätze u, Reden senckenberg, naturforsch. Ges., Aktuo-paläontologie nach Studien in der Nordsee (Frankfurt, 1962), also in English as Ecology and Palaeoecology of Marine Environments, Irmgard Oertel, trans., and G. Y. Craig, ed. (Chicago, 1972); “Arbeit im Mit-telmeer,” in Natur. u. Museum, 93 (1963), 384-389; “Biozönose und Biofazies in marinen Bereich,” Aufsätze u. Reden senckenberg, naturforsch. Ges. (1963); “Forschungsanstalt für Meeresgeologie und Meeresbiologie Senckenberg in Wilhelmshaven,” in Senck. leth, 48 (1967), 191-217; “Sarso, Modell der Biofazies-Sequenzen im Korallenriff-Bereich des Schelfs,” in Senckenbergiana maritima, v. [1] 50 (1969), 165-188; Fossilien. Bilder, und Gedanken zur paläontologischen Wissenschaft (Frankfurt, 1980).

II. Secondary Literature. Obituary notices are Emil Kuhn-Schnyder, “Wilhelm Schäfer 1912–1981,” in Paläontologische Zeitschrift, 56 (1982), 1–4 and Siegfried Rietschel, “In memoriam Wilhelm Schäfer,” in Carolinea, 40 (1982), 125-126.

Helmut HÖlder