Christian Leopold, Baron von Buch

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CHRISTIAN LEOPOLD VON BUCH, Baron (1774-1853), German geologist and geographer, a member of an ancient and noble Prussian family, was born at Stolpe in Pomerania on the 26th of April 1774. In 1790-1793 he studied at the mining school of Freiberg under Werner, one of his fellow-students there being Alexander von Humboldt. He afterwards completed his education at the universities of Halle and Göttingen. His Versuch einer mineralogischen Beschreibung von Landeck (Breslau, 1 797) was translated into French (Paris, 1805), and into English as Attempt at a Mineralogical Description of Landeck (Edinburgh, 1810); he also published in 1802 Entwurf einer geognostischen Beschreibung von Schlesien (Geognostische Beobachtungen auf Reisen durch Deutschland and Italien, Band i.). He was at this time a zealous upholder of the Neptunian theory of his illustrious master. In 1797 he met Humboldt at Salzburg, and with him explored the geological formations of Styria, and the adjoining Alps. In the spring of the following year, von Buch extended his excursions into Italy, where his faith in the Neptunian theory was shaken. In his previous works he had advocated the aqueous origin of basaltic and other formations. In 1799 he paid his first visit to Vesuvius, and again in 1805 he returned to study the volcano, accompanied by Humboldt and Gay Lussac. They had the good fortune to witness a remarkable eruption, which supplied von Buch with data for refuting many erroneous ideas then entertained regarding volcanoes. In 1802 he had explored the extinct volcanoes of Auvergne. The aspect of the Puy de Dome, 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 scientific results of his investigations he embodied in his Geognostische Beobachtungen auf Reisen durch Deutschland and Italien (Berlin, 1802-1809). From the south of Europe von Buch repaired to the north, and spent two years among the Scandinavian islands, making 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. The details of these discoveries are given in his Reise durch Norwegen and Lappland (Berlin, 1810). In 1815 he visited the Canary Islands in company with Christian Smith, the Norwegian botanist. His observations here 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 are the remains of a pre-existing continent. The physical description of the Canary Islands was published at Berlin in 1825, and this work alone is regarded as an enduring monument of his labours. After leaving the Canaries von Buch proceeded to the Hebrides and the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Palaeontology also claimed his attention, and he described in 1831 and later years a number of Cephalopods, Brachiopods and Cystidea, and pointed out their stratigraphical importance. In addition to the works already mentioned von Buch published in 1832 the magnificent Geological Map of Germany (42 sheets, Berlin). His geological excursions were continued without interruption till his 78th year. Eight months before his death he visited Iv. 23 a the mountains of Auvergne; and on returning home he read a paper on the Jurassic formation before the Academy of Berlin. He died at Berlin on the 4th of March 1853. Von Buch had inherited from his father a fortune more than sufficient for his wants. He was never married, and was unembarrassed by family ties. 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. Under this guise, the passer-by would not easily have recognized the man whom Humboldt pronounced the greatest geologist of his time.

A complete edition of his works was published at Berlin (1867-1885).

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