Zittel, Karl Alfred Von

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(b. Bahlingen, Baden, Germany, 25 September 1839; d.Munich Germany 5 January 1904)

paleontology, geology, history of geology.

Zittel is recognized as the leading teacher of paleontology in the nineteenth century and as the only encyclopedist of the subject. The youngest son of Karl Zittel, a liberal and politically active Protestant minister, he grew up in an intellectually stimulating atmosphere. At the University of Heidelberg he studied under the geologist Carl Caesar von Leonhard, the mineralogist Johann Reinhard Blum, and the paleontologist Heinrich Georg Bronn. He also worked without pay in a shop that sold natural history specimens. After 1860 Zittel traveled in Scandinavia for three months before completing his training in Paris under Edmond Hebert.

In 1862 Zittel moved to Vienna, then a center of geological studies. At first he worked as a volunteer at the Geologische Reichsanstalt and participated in the mapping of Dalmatia. The following year he qualified as a lecturer at the University of Vienna, at which Eduard Suess had just begun to teach. Zittel declined an offer from the University of Lemberg (Lvov) in order to continue his studies of the extensive Viennese paleontological collections and to produce his first publications. From 1863 to 1866 he was professor of mineralogy, geognosy, and paleontology at the technical college in Karlsruhe.

In 1866 Zittel accepted a post at the University of Munich, attracted by its exceptionally rich paleontological collections. As successor to Albert Oppel, he dealt with a stage that the latter had established: the Tithonian or Portland stage of the Upper Jurassic. Aided by his students, Zittel not only described Tithonian fauna in terms of guide fossils but also presented a thorough biological (paleozoological) discussion of the material. While at Munich, Zittel devoted great energy to expanding the paleontological collections, thereby establishing the basis for his lifework: the creation of a systematics of the organic fossil record. The results of twenty years of almost superhuman effort were presented in Handbuch der Palaeontologie. The sole author of the four volumes on paleozoology, Zittel covered all forms of fossils, from the protozoans to the mammals.

In order to further his great project, Zittel undertook intensive research into inadequately examined areas, devoting particular attention to relationships between fossil and recent forms of life. He was the first to investigate fossil sponges by zoological methods-previously they had been described solely according to external characteristics. Zittel exposed their skeletons through cauterization and applied to siliceous sponges the distinction between Lithistida and Hexactinellida that Oscar Schmidt had discovered in 1870. Having initially found lithistid skeletal elements in the hexactinellid Coeloptychium, he first assumed on this evidence that both groups were of common origin. He soon learned, however, that these lithistic elements were drifted secondarily by water transportation and, therefore, Hexactinellida and Lithistida were distinctly separated in their fossilized state.

Under the influence of Darwin’s work, Zittel became a pioneer of evolutionary paleontology. Nonetheless, his experience with the sponges made him very cautious with regard to all phylogenetic speculation. Although his writings obviously are based on the presupposition of the continuity of the evolutionary process in nature, he constantly stressed the lacunae in the evidence for this continuity. This cautious attitude, however, has endowed Zittel’s work with lasting value.

Zittel’s exposition of systematics in the Handbuch is characterized by unsurpassed clarity at every, level, down to that of the individual taxonomic diagnoses. He sustained this lucidity although he knew that it is impossible to determine the relationship between fossil types with certainty and that, therefore, every attempt to establish boundaries between them is necessarily precarious; this constitutes his greatest achievement in the Handbuch. In this respect, Zittel profited from the pre-Darwinian heritage of his student, years, when he learned to give precise linguistic expression to bounddaries that supposedly were found fixed in nature. He respected the concept of systematics as a historical validity and was aware that their ability to provide continuity and a synoptic view would be threatened if they were made to depend too heavily on changing phylogenetic interpretations. Zittel adhered to these principles in his twovolume Grundzöge der Paläonotologie which was traslated into several foreign languages and earned him the title “Linnaeus of Paleontology.” His primarily systematic treatment might appear one-sided to the modern paleonotologist, accustomed to an increasingly differnetiated discipline and a marked ecological orientation. Nevertheless, using this approach, Zittle endowed the subjest with a firm basis that is still indispensable

As a paleonotolgist, Zittel naturally took an interest in historical geology adn also contributed to general and regional geology. For example, he was the first to investigate closely the evidence of the existence of diluvial moraines on the Bavarian plateau. Further, while participating in Gerhard Rohlf’s expedition to the Libyan desert (1873-1874), he recognized that the desert sand was a product of wind erosion and did not originate in a Quaternary Sahara sea. (Some scientists had held that European Quaternary glaciation was influenced by the existence of such a sea.)

Zittel’s mastery of geology and paleontology and of its history is reflected in his Geschichte der Geologic und Paläontologie. (As an encyclopedic historical survey it still remains an indispensable reference for the history of geology, being especially strong on Continental European developments of the nineteenth century. The English translation of 1901 is currently in print.) In this book he could proudly state that during his years at the University of Munich, it became “a center of paleontologi-cal and geological studies, where a considerable number of researchers from all parts of the world received their training.”

Elected president of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in 1899, Zittel was an honorary member of many scientific societies in Europe and elsewhere .


I. Original Works. Zittel’s writings include “Analyse des Arendaler Orthits,” in Annalen der Physik, 108 (1859), his dissertation: “Die Bivalven der Gosauge-bilde in den nordöstlichen Alpen,” in Denkschriften der Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna), Math.-phys. Kl., 24 (1864), 105-177 ; and 25 (1866), 77-198 ; “Palaeontologische Studien über die Grenzschichten der Jura- and Kreideformation im Gebiete der Karpathen, Alpen and Apenninen . I. Die Cephalopoden der Stram-berger Schichten,” in Palaeontologische Mitteilungen aus dem Museum des K. bayerischen Staates,2 (1868); II. “Die Fauna der älteren Cephalopoden führenden Tithonbildungen,” in Palaeontographica, supp .2, pts. I and 2 (1870); III. “Die Gastropoden der Stramberger Schichten,” in Palaeontologische Mitteilungen aus dem Museum des K. bayerischen Staates, 2 , pt. 3 (1873), 311-491 Aus der Urzeit (Munich, 1872; 2nd ed., 1875); “Über Gletschererscheinungen in der bayerischen Hochebene,” in Sitzungsberichte der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu München, Math.-phys. KI., 4 (1874), 252-283; “;Uber Coeloptychium. Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis der Organisation fossiler Spongien,” in Abhandlungen der Bayerischen Akademie der Wis-senschaften, Math.-phys. Kl ., 12, pt. 3 (1876), 1-80; and “Studien über fossile Spongien,” ibid., 13, pts. 1 and 2 (1877-1878).

Additional works are “Über die Flugsaurier (Ptero-dactylen) aus dem lithographischen Schiefer Bayerns,” in Palaeontographica, 29 (1882), 47-80 ; “Beiträge zur Geologie and Paläontologie der Libyschen Wüste und der angrenzenden Gebiete von Ägypten, 1. Geologie,” ibid., 30 (1883), 1-153; Handbuch der Palaeontologie, pt. 1, 4 vols . (Munich-Leipzig, 1876-1893); pt. 2, Palaeophytologie, by W. P. Schimper and A. Schenk (Munich-Leipzig, 1890), French trans. by Charles Barrois as Traite de paleontologie, 5 vols. (Paris, 1883-1894), English t rans. b y Charles Eastman as Text-book of Paleontology (London, 1896; 2nd ed ., 1913); “The Geological Development, Descent and Distribution of the Mammalia,” in Geological Magazine, 30 (1893), 401-412, 455-468, 501-514 ; Grundzüge der Paläontologie (Paläozoologie), 2 vols. (Munich-Leipzig-Berlin, 1895); “Ontogenie, Phylo-genie and Systematik,” in Comptes rendus du Congrès international de géologic, 1894 (Lausanne, 1897), 134-136; Geschichte der Geologic und Paläontologie bis Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts (Munich-Leipzig, 1899), trans. by Maria M. Ogilvie-Gordon as History of Geology and Paleontology (London, 1901 ;repr. New York, 1962); and “Über wissenschaftliche Wahrheit,” in Festrede der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (1902).

II. Secondary Literature. See Charles Barrois, “Notice nécrologique sur K.-A. von Zittel,” in Bulletin de la Société géologique de France, 4th ser., 4 (1904), 488-493; Wilhelm Branco, “Karl Alfred von Zittel,” in Monatsberichte der Deutschen geologischen Gesell-schaft, 56 (1904), 1-7; Wilhelm Deecke, “Karl Alfred von Zittel,” in Badische Biographien, VI (Heidelberg, 1935), 380-387; Archibald Geikie, “Anniversary Address,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 60 (1904), 1v-lix; Otto Jaekel, “K. A. von Zittel, Der Altmeister der Paläontologie,” in Naturwis-senschaftliche Wochenschrift, n.s. 3, no. 23 (1904), 1-7; F. L. Kitchin, “Professor Karl Alfred von Zittel,” in Geological Magazine, 41 (1904), 90-96, with complete bibliography; J. F. Pompeckj, “Karl Alfred von Zittel …” in Palaeontographica, 50 (1903-1904), 3-28, with portrait; August Rothpletz, “Gedächtnisrede auf Karl Alfred von Zittel,” in Sitzungsberichte der Bayerischen Akadeinie der Wissenschaften zu Mülnchen,35 (1905), 3-23; and Charles Schuchert, “Karl Alfred von Zittel,” in Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for 1904 (1905), 779-786.

Helmut HÖlder