Christian Leopold von Buch bigraphy, stories - German geologist

Christian Leopold von Buch : biography

April 26, 1774 - March 4, 1853

Christian Leopold von Buch (April 26, 1774 – March 4, 1853) was a German geologist and paleontologist born in Stolpe an der Oder (now a part of Angermünde, Brandenburg) and is remembered as one of the most important contributors to geology in the first half of the nineteenth century. His scientific interest was devoted to a broad spectrum of geological topics: volcanism, fossils, stratigraphy and more. His most remembered accomplishment is the scientific definition of the jurassic system.


Statue, sculpted by [[Richard Ohmann]] He studied together with Alexander von Humboldt under Abraham Gottlob Werner at the mining school in Freiberg, Saxony. He afterwards completed his education at the universities of Halle and Göttingen.

German and Italian explorations

He began writing on geological topics early in life. His Versuch einer mineralogischen Beschreibung von Landeck (Breslau, 1797) was translated into French (Paris, 1805), and into English as Attempt at a Mineralogical Description of Landeck (Edinburgh, 1810). In 1802, he published Entwurf einer geognostischen Beschreibung von Schlesien (The Geognosy of Silesia; first volume of his Geognostische Beobachtungen auf Reisen durch Deutschland und Italien, see below). He was at this time a zealous upholder of the Neptunian theory of Werner, with some modifications. In 1797, he met Humboldt at Salzburg, and with him explored the geological formations of Styria, and the adjoining Alps. In the spring of 1798, von Buch extended his excursions into Italy, where his faith in the Neptunian theory was shaken. In his early works, he had advocated the aqueous origin of basaltic and other formations, but now he saw cause to abandon Werner's theory, and to recognize the volcanic origin of the basalts.

He saw Vesuvius for the first time in 1799. Later, in 1805, he had the opportunity, along with Humboldt and Gay Lussac, of witnessing its actual eruption. It was a remarkable eruption, and supplied von Buch with data for refuting many erroneous ideas then entertained regarding volcanoes. In 1802 he examined the extinct volcanoes of Auvergne in the south of France. The aspect of the Puy de Dôme, with its cone of trachyte and its strata of basaltic lava, induced him to abandon as untenable the doctrines of Werner on the formation of these rocks. The results of all these geological travels were given to the world in a work entitled Geognostische Beobachtungen auf Reisen durch Deutschland und Italien (Observations During Travels in Germany and Italy; Berlin, 1802–09).

Scandinavian explorations

In 1806, von Buch proceeded to Scandinavia, and spent two years in examining its physical constitution. This furnished the materials for his work entitled Reise durch Norwegen und Lappland (Travels in Norway and Lapland, Berlin, 1810). He made many important observations on the geography of plants, on climatology and on geology. He showed that many of the erratic blocks on the North German plains must have come from Scandinavia. He also established the fact that the whole of Sweden is slowly but continuously rising above the level of the sea from Frederikshald to Abo.

Canary Islands and the Atlantic

In 1815 he visited the Canary Islands in company with Christian Smith, a Norwegian botanist. These volcanic isles furnished the starting point from which von Buch commenced a regular course of study on the production and activity of volcanoes. This is attested by his standard work on the subject entitled Physical Description of the Canary Isles (1825). His observations convinced him that these and other islands of the Atlantic owed their existence to volcanic action of the most intense kind, and that the groups of islands in the South Sea were the remains of a pre-existing continent. During his time in the Canary Islands, he visited the Las Cañadas Caldera on Tenerife and the Caldera de Taburiente on La Palma. When he published his memoirs and observations about his excursion, he introduced the Spanish word "Caldera" for "Bowl" into the geological and scientific vocabulary. On his return from the Canaries he visited the basaltic group of the Hebrides and the coasts of Scotland and Ireland.

His geological excursions, even in countries which he had repeatedly visited before, continued without interruption until a very advanced age: eight months before his death he visited the mountains of Auvergne, and on returning home he read a paper on the Jurassic formation before the Academy of Berlin. Humboldt, who had known him intimately for a period of more than 60 years, called him the greatest geologist of that period. Von Buch was unmarried and lived aloof from the world, entirely devoted to scientific pursuits. His excursions were always taken on foot, with a staff in his hand, and the large pockets of his overcoat filled with papers and geological instruments.

He died in Berlin.

Memberships and honors

In 1825, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Recipient of the Blue Max

Elected as the first foreign member of the Geological Society of London

The German Geological Society (DGG) named its Leopold-von-Buch-Plakette after him.


Besides the works already mentioned, he was the author of many important tracts on paleontology, for example:

  • On the Ammonites, 1832
  • On the Terebratulae, 1834
  • On the Ceratites, 1841
  • On the Cystidae, 1845

Other noteworthy books were:

  • Geological Map of Germany (42 sheets), Berlin, 1832
  • Über den Jur in Deutschland, 1839


Living octopus

Living octopus

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