Werner, Abraham Gottlob (1749-1817) (World of Earth Science)
One of the founders of stratigraphy, Abraham Werner was one of the first to apply the modern scientific method to many geological problems, had a powerful and positive influence on his scientists, and was one of the first to attempt a description of the geological history of the world free from religious and mystical explanations.
Werner was born in Wehrau, Silesia (now Germany), although some sources suggest it was the Wehrau in Upper Lusatia, (now Osiecznica, Poland). His father was the inspector of the Duke of Solm's ironworks, and much of Werner's education was designed to prepare him to follow in his father's footsteps. After being taught at home by his father and private tutors he enrolled in the new Bergakademie (Mining Academy) in Freiberg in 1769. While there, he was recruited into the Saxon mining service, but needed a law degree (jurisprudence) in order to advance in his career, and so began studies at the University of Leipzig. Werner found himself distracted by other subjects, especially the history of languages and mineralogy.
In 1774, he abandoned his law degree, and left university, but by then he had already published a book, Von den äusserlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien, which was a practical and orderly mineral identification manual. On the strength of his book he gained a teaching position at the Mining Academy in Freiberg. Werner kept the job for the rest of his life, teaching there for over 40 years. He was justly famous for his lectures, and his courses attracted students from all over the Western world.
Werner is remembered most for his water-based theory of the creation of Earth's crust. Named Neptunism (after the Roman god of the oceans), Werner's ideas, while incorrect, were nonetheless based firmly on the physical evidence of his day. He argued that all older rocks were sedimentary in nature, and had been laid down by an ancient, universal ocean. The different rock types and strata were explained by changes in the depth and turbulence of the universal ocean. Werner was one of the first to think of the earth as a whole, and called his new approach "geognosy." Werner's field work, which was mainly in Saxony, convinced him that the opposing view, that ancient rock had a volcanic origin (Vulcanism), was incorrect. In particular, he was sure that basalt, a very common rock, was sedimentary, despite strong opposition. To prove his ideas were truly universal many of his students set out across Europe looking for supporting evidence. However, many found that outside of Saxony Werner's ideas were not supported at all, and the rival notion of Vulcanism became dominant. It is a tribute to Werner's teaching methods that these students placed such a high degree of importance on what they saw, rather than slavishly following the doctrine of their teacher. Werner tried to tinker with his theory, attempting to make it fit with the new evidence while still retaining the basics, but in doing so it lost much of its simplicity and logic. However, while Neptunism was a dead-end, Werner can be credited with inspiring scientists to think about the natural forces that had created Earth's crust, and with training a generation of inquiring European geologists who went beyond his initial investigations.
He suffered from ill health in his later years, and after 1793 he published very few geological works. Instead he devoted his time to teaching, and a few official duties. Werner was elected to 22 scientific societies in his lifetime, and he was eulogized by followers and opponents alike after his death in Dresden in 1817. He never married, and left most of his estate to the Bergakademie, the school that had been his focus for most of his adult life.
See also Minerals; Sedimentary rocks