Wüst, Georg

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(b. Posen, Poland, 15 June 1890;

d. Erlangen, Germany, 8 November 1977)

physical oceanography.

Wüst’s standing as one of the most prominent German physical oceanographers is based on his participation in the famous German South Atlantic Expedition onboard the research vessel Meteor (1925–1927) and his many detailed publications on the Atlantic bottom water sphere. Furthermore, he was interested in the Gulf Stream and other western boundary current systems in the world ocean and the influence of bottom topography on the general vertical and horizontal circulation patterns of the world ocean, as well as in specific problems of regional seas such as the Mediterranean, the Baltic, and the Caribbean. Academically Wüst was associated with the famous Museum und Institut für Meereskunde (Museum and Institute for Oceanography) in Berlin and, after World War II, with the Kiel Institut für Meereskunde. After his retirement he spent five very productive years in the United States, mainly at Columbia University. Wüst had many friends and students in Germany and worldwide. He was the leading figure in physical oceanography in Germany for many decades. His ideas and publications remained in the early 2000s important for modern international marine research projects.

Early Life and Career in Berlin. Wüst was born on 15 June 1890 in Posen (later Poznan, Poland), the son of a Prussian official. Shortly after Georg’s birth his parents moved to Berlin, where Wüst spent his childhood. He went to Charlottenburg Gymnasium and in 1910 entered the Friedrich-Wilhelms University in Berlin, where he studied geography, oceanography, meteorology, mathematics, and physics. From the beginning of his career his main academic focus was geography and oceanography. The Berlin Museum und Institut für Meereskunde, established by Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen in 1900, was closely linked to the university’s Department of Geography, and Albrecht Penck, a noted geographer, was director of both departments (since 1905). Penck was succeeded at the Berlin Museum und Institut in 1910 by Alfred Merz, an Austrian hydrographer who had conducted research in the Adriatic Sea; Merz’s work fascinated the young student Wüst.

In 1920 Merz became the first director of the Berlin Institut für Meereskunde, now a separate and independent institution, serving in that capacity until his tragic death in Buenos Aires in 1925. Albert Defant was subsequently appointed director. Both were Wüst’s superiors during this first long phase of scientific development in Berlin, which lasted until the end of World War II.

Merz, who planned to study an entire ocean systematically, sent Wüst to work with Björn Helland-Hansen in Bergen in Norway in 1912 to gain acquaintance with modern Scandinavian methods in oceanography. In addition, Wüst took an active role in the observational program onboard the lightships off the German coast and joined a summer class in oceanography organized at Rovigno, the shore station of the Berlin Institute in the northern Adriatic Sea. Under the guidance of Merz, Wüst prepared his doctoral thesis about evaporation above the sea surface. The date of his promotion was 28 August 1914, but officially his PhD was awarded on 30 June 1919. During the war Wüst served as a meteorologist and was wounded in action near Verdun on 1 October 1917. In June 1919 Wüst was appointed as Merz’s assistant and joined a number of shorter research cruises in the North Sea and the Baltic. Theirs was also a close personal relationship, and Wüst became Merz’s son-in-law in 1921.

Onboard R.V. Meteor (1925–1927). The German Meteor expedition was a major accomplishment for the German science community after the war and a highlight in the history of oceanography. Merz proposed to study one ocean systematically in detail, according to a strict plan. Altogether there were 310 hydrographic stations arranged on fourteen more or less latitudinal sections across the South Atlantic Ocean between 20° north to 65° south. In 1924 Merz’s proposal to the German Society for the Advancement of Science (Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft) was approved, and a navy survey vessel was put at his disposal. From the beginning Wüst was involved in this pioneering approach to studying the horizontal and vertical circulation patterns of water masses in an ocean. Wüst and Merz coauthored a number of papers on the vertical circulation in the Atlantic Ocean before the cruise started in April 1925.

Merz fell ill onboard the Meteor during the initial leg of the expedition, which began in Buenos Aires; he had to be taken back and died there on 13 June 1925. After this tragic event, Wüst took over most of Merz’s responsibilities, according to the last wish of his mentor. As supervisor of the oceanographic task, Wüst’s mission was to bring the Meteor expedition to a successful end, to evaluate the rich harvest of oceanographic data, and to publish the main results. In retrospect Wüst was an excellent caretaker of Merz’s legacy. In addition to its main focus, which was physical oceanography and the identification and movements of different water masses, the Meteor expedition had interdisciplinary aspects as well. A number of well-known oceanographers were onboard, such as Günther Böhnecke, Arnold Schuhmacher, and Hermann Wattenberg. Moreover, a biologist (E. Hentschel), geologists (O. Pratje and C. W. Correns), and meteorologists (J. Reger and E. Kuhlbrodt) were part of the scientific staff of the German Atlantic Expedition. Albert Defant joined for the last three transects as principal investigator; he was appointed director of the Berlin Institute in 1927, taking over Merz’s position. Defant officially was in charge of the complicated editing and publishing process of the numerous expedition reports of this Meteor expedition, which inaugurated a new chapter in the development of ocean sciences. Wüst accepted Defant as his superior, and Defant trusted Wüst and delegated much of the publishing work.

Wüst made very substantial contributions to the Meteor reports, especially on deep sea and bottom circulation. His study of the deep water sphere of the Atlantic Ocean, originally published as part of Volume VI in 1935, became a classical text; it was translated into English in 1978 for the National Science Foundation in Washington, DC, as a late tribute. To study the spread of bottom water Wüst relied on bathymetric information. He used the 33,000 echo soundings obtained during the cruise. Theodor Stocks, cartographer of the Berlin Institute since 1930, evaluated this voluminous data set and produced a more or less reliable picture of the sea floor morphology. This bathymetric chart of the Atlantic Ocean was a standard for decades.

Kustos and Professor. The vessel Meteor returned home in July 1927, and Wüst was appointed Kustos (custodian or provost) of the Berlin Institute on 1 April 1928. This function involved administrative and organizational duties as well, and Wüst was responsible for the library, the public lecture series, and other public outreach activities of the museum and the Institut für Meereskunde in Berlin. He was editor of a very popular book series (Das Meer in volkstümlichen Darstellungen). Wüst arranged a special exhibition room for the Meteor cruise in the museum.

Wüst was a descriptive oceanographer with a strong background in geography. From 1922 until 1929 he was president of the Berlin Geographical Society (Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin). In 1928 Wüst arranged an international oceanographic conference in Berlin on occasion of the Society’s centenary, one of the highlights in Wüst’s long career. He received the Carl Ritter Award for his effective help in managing and publishing the Meteor observations according to the plan of A. Merz in 1928. Wüst was an honorary member of the geographical societies of Frankfurt and Amsterdam. The Netherlands asked him to be an advisor for the Willebrord Snellius Expedition in Indonesian waters in 1929–1930.

In July 1929 Wüst finished his postdoctoral qualification process with a thesis on the Florida Current, in which he showed that the dynamical method allowed calculations of currents from the density field in the ocean. On 1 April 1934 he was appointed kustos and honorary professor; two years later he was appointed extraordinary professor. His longtime interest in the Gulf Stream system brought him back to sea again onboard the vessel Altair in 1938 for the first quasi-synoptic study of the highly variable branching area of the Gulf Stream northwest of the Azores. This was an international endeavor involving vessels from Germany, Denmark, Norway, Scotland, Iceland, and France.

During World War II, Wüst served with the Navy. He continued to stay in Berlin and was transferred to the nautical-scientific division of the supreme naval command. In 1943 he was appointed full professor and head of a department at the institute and museum in Berlin. At the admiralty Wüst and other colleagues were engaged in preparing charts of temperature and salinity, which were not unimportant for submarine warfare. During the war Wüst obviously had a double function and continued to look after the institute. However, the well-known building in the university campus area of central Berlin was completely destroyed in a number of bomb raids in 1944.

Wüst had two daughters, Ilse and Louise, with his first wife, who died in 1941. The last day of 1944 Wüst married Marie Vollmer, called Mimi. Shortly before the end of the war Wüst had to leave Berlin with the staff of the Navy Command and came to Schleswig-Holstein. Here he was able to start a new phase of his life after a productive thirty-five years in the German capital.

Director of the Institut für Meereskunde. From 1945 until his retirement in 1959 Wüst remained in Kiel. He was transferred to the directorship of the Institut für Meereskunde of Christian Albrecht University at Kiel. The Kiel Institute was established only in 1937, although marine research in this city on the Baltic Sea is much older. Otto Krümmel had been working there from 1884 to 1911 at the Department of Geography. The Kiel Institute on the east shore of Kiel fjord had been completely destroyed in an air raid on a nearby navy installation on 24 July 1944. Hermann Wattenberg, former Meteor staff member and then director of the institute, died, along with all staff members.

Perhaps the Royal Air Force had the institute on the target list, as oceanographic research was considered militarily important. Kiel was in the British occupation zone, and Wüst, who was living near Kiel with his family after the end of the war, was asked to continue his Berlin career by reestablishing the Department of Oceanography in cooperation with some biologists who had survived the war. Some British navy officers and members of the military government, who were aware of Wüst’s merits, helped to arrange his appointment, which officially began on 1 February 1946. One of Wüst’s British friends at that time was James N. Carruthers. Wüst, who was on good terms with the local state government and the university administrators, succeeded in getting a new extensive laboratory annex built near the west shore of Kiel fjord in 1956. New departments and positions were created, and Kiel gradually acquired the leading German position in ocean sciences that was formerly held by Berlin. Wüst managed to get the scientific part of the library of the Museum and Institute of Oceanography in Berlin and succeeded in taking over a small patrol vessel of the former navy, refitting it as a research craft (Südfall). Certainly Wüst’s international reputation was valuable in many ways. In Kiel he shifted his interest to special Baltic Sea problems and started to study other semi-enclosed seas such as the Mediterranean. He went to conferences in Genua (1951), Helsinki, and elsewhere. Many of his publications of these years were printed in Kieler Meeresforschungen, the institute’s journal. Some of Wüst’s doctoral students at Kiel, such as Willi Brogmus, Klaus Wyrtki, Selim Morcos, Hartwig Weidemann, and Lorenz Magaard, became important figures in the international marine community in later years. Wüst’s official retirement date was 30 September 1958, but he stayed in office until 30 March 1959.

Emeritus Years. Immediately after retirement Wüst left Kiel and his beloved golf course and house on the east shore. Rather unexpectedly, he accepted the invitation of Maurice Ewing to come to the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory of Columbia University in Palisades, New York. He stayed there five years as a visiting professor. In spring 1962 Wüst was at the University of Washington in Seattle, filling the Walter Ames Chair for Oceanography. In the United States, Wüst transferred much of his rich knowledge and experience to students at a time of increasing interest in ocean sciences and a new era of instrumentation. He lectured in his unique “Wüstian English,” but his American colleagues and students understood and liked him. Wüst became interested in the water masses and circulation of the Caribbean Sea. One of his coworkers at Lamont-Doherty was Arnold L. Gordon, who arranged a two-volume tribute to Wüst on his eightieth birthday in 1972, containing twenty-four contributions by friends of Wüst. Furthermore, Gordon initiated an English translation of Wüst’s famous study of the Atlantic deep ocean sphere (1978). So there was a certain revival of Wüst’s descriptive oceanography at a time when the legacy of Wüst somehow faded away in Germany. But it should be emphasized that most of the international or national physical marine research projects of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—such as the WOCE effort (World Ocean Circulation Experiment) and the modern concept of a global ocean conveyor belt driven by deep convection cells—had a relation to Wüst’s pioneering studies.

In 1965 Wüst returned to Germany and stayed at the Department of Meteorology of Bonn University for two more years as visiting professor. From there he went to Erlangen, where he lived to the end of his long life in a residence for well-to-do senior citizens. He liked to receive friends and visitors and talk of the good old days. He enjoyed his last years in rather good health and in the familiar presence of his wife Mimi and his dog Whiskey.

When Georg Wüst died at the age of eighty-eight on 8 November 1977, an epoch in the history of marine sciences came to an end. His successor in Kiel, Günter Dietrich, listed all 112 scientific publications Wüst had produced over six decades. In 1972 he identified seven main areas of research interests in Wüst’s career:

  1. Evaporation and water budget of the world ocean;
  2. Vertical circulation of the Atlantic Ocean as the central topic of the Meteor Expedition (1925–1927);
  3. Geostrophic movement in the Gulf Stream and Kuroshio systems;
  4. Bottom circulation in the world ocean and its dependence on sea floor topography;
  5. Atlantic deep-sea convection and typical water masses;
  6. Circulation and water masses in the Mediterranean; and
  7. History of oceanography and deep-sea research.

In the early twenty-first century Wüst’s prominent role in the history of oceanography in Germany is well established, though less known by students and young scientists. Studying the life and letters of Wüst means covering the development of oceanographic institutions and three generations of German marine scientists of all disciplines, who had the pleasure and honor of knowing him personally.



“Die Verdunstung über dem Meere.” Berlin: Veröffentl. Inst. f. Meereskunde, N. F., Reihe A, H. 6, 1920.

“Florida- und Antillenstrom. Eine hydrodynamische Untersuchung.” Berlin: Veröff. Inst. F. Meerreskunde, N. F., Reihe A, H. 12, 1924.

“Ozeanographische Methoden und Instrumente der Deutschen Atlantischen Expedition.” Ergänzugs-Heft III, Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde Berlin(1928): 66–83.

“Die Stratosphäre des Atlantischen Ozeans.” In Wissenschaftliche Ergebnisse der Deutschen Atlantischen Expedition “Meteor“1925–1927 VI, pp. 1–144, 253–288. Berlin and Leipzig: Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft, 1935. Atlas attached.

“Bodentempβeratur und Bodenstrom in der atlantischen, indischen und pazifischen Tiefsee.” Gerlands Beiträge zur Geophysik 54 (1938): 1–8.

“Blockdiagramme der atlantischen Zirkulation auf Grund der Meteor-Ergebnisse.“Kieler Meeresforschungen 7 (1950): 24–34.

With W. Brogmus. “Ozeanographische Ergebnisse einer Untersuchungsfahrt mit Forschungskutter “Südfall” durch die Ostsee Juni–Juli 1954.” Kieler Meeresforschungen 11 (1955): 3–21.

With C. Hoffmann, C. Schlieper, R. Kändler, et al. “Das Institut für Meereskunde der Universität Kiel nach seinem Wiederaufbau.” Kieler Meeresforschungen 12 (1956): 127–153.

“Die Tiefenzirkulation des Mittelländischen Meeres in den Kernschichten des Zwischen- und Tiefenwassers.” Deutsche Hydrographische Zeitschrift 13 (1960): 105–133.

“On the Stratification and Circulation of the Cold Water Sphere of the Caribbean-Antillan Basins.” Deep Sea Research 10 (1960): 163–167.

“The Major Deep-Sea Expeditions and Research Vessels, 1873–1960: A Contribution to the History of Oceanography.” Progress in Oceanography 2 (1964): 1–52.

“The Stratosphere of the Atlantic Ocean.” Scientific Results of the German Atlantic Expedition of the Research Vessel Meteor 1925–1927, Vol. VI, sec. 1. English translation edited by William J. Emery. New Delhi: Al-Ahram Center for Scientific Translations, 1978.


Dietrich, Günter. “Georg Wüst’s Scientific Work. Dedication to His Eightieth Birthday.” In Studies in Physical Oceanography: A Tribute to Georg Wüst on his 80th Birthday, edited by Arnold L. Gordon. 2 vols. New York, London, and Paris: Gordon and Breach Science, 1972. Vol. 1, XI–XX (with full list of Wüst’s publications).

Roll, Hans Ulrich. “Georg Wüst, 1890–1977.” Deutsche Gesellschaft für Meeresforschung-Mitteilungen(1987): 25–28.

Schott, Wolfgang. Early German Oceanographic Institutions, Expeditions and Oceanographers. Compiled for the Fourth International Congress on the History of Oceanography. Hamburg: Deutsches Hydrographisches Institut, 1987.

Stocks, Theodor. “Georg Wüst und seine Stellung in der neueren Ozeanographie.” Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen 104 (1960): 292–205. Includes a list of Wüst’s publications up to 1960.

Weidemann, Hartwig. “Georg Wüst und das Kieler Institut für Meereskunde (zum 100. Geburtstag am 15. 6. 1990).” Deutsche Gesellschaft für Meeresfgorschung-Mitteilungen (1990): 10–11.

Gerhard Kortum