Schott, Paul Gerhard

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(b. Tschirma, Germany, 15 August 1866; d. Hamburg, Germany, 15 January 1961),


Schott devoted his life to the world’s oceans. His vast knowledge enabled him to understand the oceans as a unique system with regional distinctions and to communicate his insights to the learned public. For decades he was considered the preeminent German oceanographer, and he was honored by numerous national societies in Europe and abroad.

Education Schott grew up in a small village, where his father was the schoolmaster. He entered the nearby university in Jena to study geography and history in preparation for a career as a teacher in secondary schools. His mother was a friend of the wife of the famous Ernst Abbe—professor at the university and inventor of optical lenses and cofounder of the company Carl-Zeiss-Jena—so Schott lived with the Abbes during this period. Through this private connection he met important scientists such as Hermann von Helmholtz, philosopher and man of science; and politicians such as August Bebel, founder of the German Social Democratic Party. Such encounters had a lasting influence on him. In 1887 he continued his studies in Berlin with Ferdinand von Richthofen, who later founded the Institut und Museum für Meereskunde (Institute and Museum of Marine Science). He finished his studies in 1891 with a thesis on surface temperature and currents in East Asian waters, for which he had evaluated the data in logbooks of trading vessels collected at the German Hydrographic Office (Deutsche Seewarte) in Hamburg.

Scientific Career To honor Schott’s dissertation, Richthofen and president of the Hydrographic Office, Georg Neumayer, arranged a one-year scholarship funded by the Prussian Ministry of Culture, which included a free ticket for all sailing vessels of the shipping company R. C. Rickmers in Bremen. Schott made extensive use of this offer and conducted observations in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans in 1891–1892, choosing different routes to cover as large an area as possible. This voyage took him an entire year. At the age of twenty-seven he moved to Hamburg to take up a permanent position at the Hydrographic Office, where he remained until his retirement in 1931.

Through his considerable publication activity on oceanic matters, Schott soon became a well-known specialist in oceanography. He was asked to participate in the German Deep-Sea Expedition with the steamer Valdivia in 1898–1899 to the Atlantic and Indian oceans, initiated by the zoologist Carl Chun from Breslau (who later moved to Leipzig). Schott’s volume on the scientific results was honored by the Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin (Society of Geography of Berlin), with the Karl Ritter Medal in silver. In the following years he was invited to numerous places in Germany and other European countries to talk about the Valdivia Expedition, and he met the leading scientists in this field.

After publishing his book on the geography of the entire Atlantic Ocean, unprecedented in its content, the Hydrographic Office created a special division of marine science for him to supervise. In his new position as chief hydrographer, his obligation was to supervise the oceano-graphic work of German survey vessels all over the world, including the evaluation of the observations. World War I brought about a complete change in focus of his activities. While he had dealt before with the ocean as a medium of public interest, especially with respect to seafaring, he now was involved in confidential observations to serve German submarine operations. The focus changed back to civilian purposes after the war, when the range of observations was restricted to the North and Baltic seas.

From the start of his official duties in Hamburg, Schott engaged himself in academic teaching, which he continued until his retirement. First he participated in the public program of general lectures in all scientific disciplines, and he taught at the University of Hamburg from the beginning of its founding in 1919. He was appointed a professor there in 1921. As a consequence of his initiative, a chair and an institute of oceanography were established at the new university.

Scientific Reputation Up to the mid-nineteenth century, knowledge of the world’s oceans was very fragmentary. This changed rapidly in 1853, when—following a proposal by U.S. naval officer and hydrographer Matthew Fountain Maury—it was internationally agreed upon to take standardized observations on trading vessels and to collect them at national hydrographic offices. As a student, Schott had been the first in Germany to use these data for his thesis, and during his one-year stay in Hamburg he derived a picture of the surface current system in East Asian waters by calculating the daily drift of ships between their positions at noon. While doing this painstaking work, he soon developed a reliable sense for the processes in the ocean, and he criticized geography scholars of his time, who tended to systematize the view on the ocean too much—a widespread trend in natural science at the time. An example was the search for geographical characteristics to subdivide the ocean into regional areas. This approach had been taken, for example, by the leading oceanographer in Germany, Otto Krümmel of Kiel, who was the first to compile the state of knowledge of oceanic motion in volume 2 of the Hand-buch der Ozeanographie(Handbook of Oceanography), in 1887. Throughout his life Schott resisted the temptation to develop or accept academic theories, and this was probably the reason for his refusal of a professorship in Berlin.

After completing his university education, Schott had begun to write scientific papers. During his active life he wrote an average of ten papers annually. Beginning with his first journey to East Asia on merchant sailing vessels, he sent reports home, summarizing the results in a monograph in 1893. Six evaluations focusing on specific questions followed. He found pleasure in sailing the seas and describing his observations. He also began at an early stage to report on progress in the field of oceanography in general, with annual updates. He particularly highlighted research results with potential commercial benefits—for example in seafaring or fisheries—and he set out to be read by a wide audience by publishing in different relevant journals. As a result, he became well known even in his early years. In 1898 he published a world map of ocean currents, which was well received by many, though it was criticized by Krümmel, who accused him of inaccuracies in some areas. Schott responded that he preferred to study what nature reveals rather than to follow conceptual models. That same year Schott married Gertrud Tietz; they would have four children.

Soon after the return of the Valdivia Expedition, Schott was the first of the scientific crew to deliver the results of his observations in a comprehensive volume and an additional atlas. Krümmel praised this accomplishment as going far beyond the comparable work by Alexander Buchan of the Challenger Expedition (1872–1876), which was considered to mark the onset of modern oceanography. By including earlier observations, Schott presented a complete picture of the general temperature distribution in the Atlantic and Indian oceans. His graphs showing the depth of isotherms, from which the large-scale dynamic motion in the oceans may be determined, were unprecedented in oceanography. He furthermore constructed vertical east-west (zonal) and north-south (meridional) sections of the temperature in a way that covered both oceans by large quadratic boxes. This view was not taken up by other scientists until the 1970s in computer-based models of mass transport by the world oceanic circulation.

In 1903 Schott published his book Physische Meereskunde (Physical Oceanography) in a scientific popular series, whose third edition was translated into Spanish. Krümmel had written a comparable introduction to oceanography fifteen years earlier, which approximately corresponds to the difference in the age of both men.

Schott emphasized international cooperation and, when the countries of northern Europe had founded the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) in 1902, he argued for an exploration of the entire Atlantic Ocean on an international basis in respect to its physical and biological conditions. He did this together with the Swedish oceanographer Otto Pettersson, who had initiated ICES. Although well supported at international geographic congresses, this plan failed due to the national rivalries preceding World War I.

In 1912 Schott reached the peak of his scientific productivity, publishing a monograph on the Atlantic Ocean. The book starts with a history of the discovery of the Atlantic. This historical introduction was obviously inspired by a similar introduction to the report on the scientific results of the Challenger Expedition by John Murray, who had gained an “immortal merit,” as Schott put it. The name “Atlantic” originates from antiquity (mare atlanticum, for the waters west of the Pillars of Hercules), but it was internationally accepted only in 1845 when the nomenclature of all parts of the world’s oceans was clarified. Chapters on geology and geomorphology follow, and Schott enters into the discussion on the origin of the Atlantic Ocean, including the hypothesis by Alfred Wegener on continental drift. The description of physical properties and climatology fills the main part of the book, which is rounded off by information on how humankind avails itself of the Atlantic with respect to shipping, trade, fisheries, and whaling. This book was very well received nationally as well as internationally; for example, a review in Scientific American suggested that Schott’s book did not have a parallel in the English language.

In the early decades of the twentieth century the development of deep-sea thermometers had reached a precision up to 0.01 degree Celsius, by which it was possible to obtain detailed information on the vertical structure of the oceans—especially from observations in the Atlantic. This increase in accurate data initiated a sharp and sometimes emotional controversy between oceanographers over the correct interpretation of data, as well as the question of who should be credited with first having explained the structure of the internal motion. Schott took the view that German observations had first provided a reliable data base.

In a second edition of his Geographie des Atlantischen Ozeans (Geography of the Atlantic Ocean, 1926) Schott included a chapter on marine life, written by the biologist E. Hentschel, and he expanded his section on the Atlantic’s commercial value by statements on how this ocean played a geopolitical role. At that time, following World War I, this aspect had been realized as an important driving force for national economic and military development. In a third edition (1944) a further chapter was added on the sediments at the bottom of the Atlantic, written by his son Wolfgang Schott, who later became known as the first scientist postulating that climate changes at the Earth’s surface in geological times are well documented in vertical deep-sea bottom cores.

In the late 1920s Schott was asked to write similar books on the Indian and Pacific oceans. He agreed to do this after his request to finance a one-year exploratory journey around the world was fulfilled by the Notgemeinschaft der deutschen Wissenschaft (German Science Foundation). He boarded sixteen different ships, and he regarded his participation in the Fourth Pacific Science Congress in Java in 1929 as a highlight of his journey. In 1935, four years after his retirement, Schott completed his life’s work by publishing Geographie des Indischen und Stillen Ozeans(Geography of the Indian and Pacific Oceans). The arrangement of the book follows that of his work on the Atlantic. However, he abandoned chapters on economic geography and geopolitics because these fields were undergoing rapid changes at the time.

Schott continued to write scientific papers—including a longer chapter on the climate of the South Sea Islands for a handbook of climatology—up to 1944, when he was eighty-three years old. The total of his publications exceeded far beyond two hundred. Most of them deal with the hydrography and oceanography of the world’s oceans at local, regional, or global scales. The subjects of the other papers include national and international research, measuring instruments, marine meteorology, ocean traffic and its policy, and ocean science and humankind.

Honors and Awards Schott received numerous awards during his lifetime, including the Karl Ritter Medal, Gesellschaft für Erdkunde, in Berlin (1903); the Medal of the Institut Océanographique from the Prince of Monaco (1911); and the Medal of the Deutsche Seewarte in Hamburg (1912). He was an honorary member of numerous scientific societies, including the Geographic Society in Amsterdam, the Royal Italian Geographical Society, the German Scientific Commission of Marine Research in Berlin, the Geographical Society in Jena, the Geographical Society in Lübeck, and the Challenger Society of the British Museum in London. He was a corresponding member of the Prussian Academy of Science in Göttingen, the Geographic Society in Leningrad, and the Geographical Society in New York. In 1936 he was awarded the Georg Neumayer Medal in gold of the Geographical Society in Berlin.

Preston E. James evaluated Schott’s contribution to earth science by comparing it with the work of Eduard Suess regarding geologic structure and surface features and that of Julius Hann regarding climate conditions. “Now once again we are indebted to the genius of the Germans for having produced another compendium to stand with those earlier classics. Henceforth with these other two names we must associate the name of Gerhard Schott, whose monumental work on the oceans completes this trilogy on land, air, and water” (James, 1936, p. 664).


The article by Bruno Schultz, cited below at the end of the bibliography, includes a nearly complete list of Schott’s publications.


Wissenschaftliche Ergebnisse einer Forschungsreise zur See, ausgeführt in den Jahren 1891 und 1892 [Scientific results of a research trip at sea, conducted in the years 1891 and 1892]. Gotha: Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, Ergänzungsheft 109, 1893.

Weltkarte zur Übersicht der Meeresströmungen[General Map of the currents of the world ocean]. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1898 (updated 1905, 1909, 1913, 1917).

Wissenschaftliche Ergebnisse der deutschen Tiefsee-Expedition auf dem Dampfer “Valdivia“1898 bis 1899. Bd. I. Ozeanographie und Meteorologie. Jena: Verlag von Gustav Fischer, 1902.

Physische Meereskunde [Physical oceanography]. Leipzig: Sammlung Göschen, 1903 (updated 1910, 1924).

With Otto Pettersson. “On the Importance of an International Exploration of the Atlantic Ocean.” Geographical Journal 33 (1909): 68–71.

Geographie des Atlantischen Ozeans. Hamburg: C. Boysen, 1912 (updated 1926, 1942, 1944).

Geographie des Indischen und Stillen Ozeans. Hamburg: C. Boysen, 1935.


James, Preston E. “The Geography of the Sea: A Review of the Work of Gerhard Schott.” Geographical Review 26 (1936): 664–669.

Krümmel, Otto. Handbuch der Ozeanographie. Vol. II, Die Bewegungsformen des Meeres [The Shapes of Motion in the Sea]. Stuttgart: J. Engelhorn, 1887.

Mills, Eric L. “Physische Meereskunde: From Geography to Physical Oceanograpy in the Institute für Meereskunde, Berlin, 1900–1935.” Historisch-meereskundliches Jahrbuch/History of Oceanography Yearbook 4 (1997): 45–70.

Schulz, Bruno. “Zur Vollendung des 70. Lebensjahres von Gerhard Schott“(On the Accomplishment of the 70th year of life of Gerhard Schott). Annalen der Hydrographie und Maritimen Meteorologie 64 (1936): 329–335.

Walter Lenz