Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/August 1886/Sketch of Oswald Heer

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 29‎ | August 1886

PSM V29 D448 Oswald Heer.jpg


"IN September last," wrote the Marquis Gaston de Saporta, in July, 1884, "Switzerland, and we might say Europe—so universal was the man's fame—lost in Oswald Heer one of the most fertile of naturalists, one of the most devoted to work, the one to whom the still new science of fossil plants is indebted for its greatest progress. Not only in his own country, but far beyond, as far as explorers have been able to penetrate, from Portugal to the depth of Siberia, from Sumatra to Spitzbergen, from Nebraska to Devonshire, in Saxony, in Austria, in Russia, everywhere, in short, where fossil plants have been discovered during the last thirty years, the name of Oswald Heer has been invariably united with the publication of the plants, the determination of their age, and with the definition of all the circumstances that can aid in identifying them and in attaching a meaning to the several wholes of which they originally constituted a part. Paleontology, geography, the laws that preside over the present distribution of plants and their migrations in times anterior to ours, and the delicate considerations which appertain to the filiation of species, to the order of succession of floras through the past, the variations of climate, the movements of the crust of the earth, all these subjects, recently hidden, now just brought to light, alike depend on the persevering labors of Oswald Heer, and derive from his researches at least partial elements for their solution." "Nature" remarked, in noticing his death, that "however the study of fossil plants may rank in the time to come, Heer's name will forever be bound up with it as its great pioneer." And Dr. Asa Gray said, on a similar occasion, that his works "make an era in vegetable paleontology. Their crowning general interest is, that they bring the vegetation of the past into direct connection with the present."

Oswald Heer was born at Niederutzwyl, in the Canton of St. Gall, Switzerland, August 1, 1809, and died in Lausanne, September 27, 1883. His father was a clergyman, originally of the Canton Glarus, and came of a family that enjoyed an honorable distinction in Swiss history. Of the three branches of the family tracing their descent from a common ancestor, Councilor Abraham Heer, born in 1580, one was extinguished in the male line in the fifth generation; the second, after having produced a number of honored statesmen, came to a similar end with the death of Federal Councilor and President of the Federation, Dr. Joachim Heer. The third branch, whose sons through five generations have nearly all been clergymen, is the one to which the subject of this sketch belonged, and it still lives in several families.

Oswald Heer was an infant of good physical promise; but before he was a year old he was brought nearly to the grave by scarlet fever, and never recovered from the effects of the attack. He was made weak for the rest of his life, for many years an invalid; but, having inherited a strong constitution, he was nevertheless capable of enduring extraordinary fatigue with great ease. In 1811 Pastor Heer was called to be director of a newly founded high-school for boys at Glarus, where he was guaranteed a position for three years, and eventually remained five years. Thence, in January, 1817, he removed to Matt, in the Kleinthal, where Oswald spent his boyhood. In that deep recess of the mountains, whose only communication with the world at the time was by an arduous bridle-path, the good pastor performed the part of a general dispenser of beneficences. He urged the construction of better roads; there being no doctor at the place, he learned to take care of those who were brought to him with frozen limbs or hurt by avalanches; he introduced inoculation for the small-pox; he taught the workmen in the slate-quarries lessons of temperance and thrift, to save their earnings rather than spend them in the beer-shops where they were paid to them; and he labored hard and with success to supply his people with improved schools.

The tendencies of young Heer's mind began to assert themselves in the earlier stages of his education, which was conducted under the supervision of his father. He kept an exercise-book, in which he reproduced a number of moral and religious stories. Among these stories was one of the education of the family of a Herr Gutmann, a work apparently of a kind with our English "Sandford and Merton," with which the youth was so charmed that, not doubting its reality, he made earnest efforts to become acquainted with the children, sending letters to his friends in other places in hopes that they might be able to forward them to the proper addresses. Pastor Wyss's "Swiss Family Robinson" fell into his hands and awakened in him an intense interest in natural history. He tried, as nearly as circumstances would allow, to repeat the adventures and exploits of the four sprightly youths of this story. He had no buffaloes, and jackals, and ostriches to subdue and train; but he could catch and tame magpies, and hawks, and marmots, and foxes. His experiments were not always fortunate, but he learned. A letter which he wrote to his cousin is interesting as showing how much he admired his "Robinson," and as marking the progress he was making in the study of the ancient-languages, by the comical mixture of German and Latin words in which it is composed. Four years later, in 1823, he was beginning fractions, had finished the Latin Grammar, and was interlarding his letters with French phrases. A few months later these gave way to attempts at the Greek characters, and he was learning to draw; for on the 1st of December he wrote, "To-day I finished my head." It is remarked of this period by his brother, Pastor Justus Heer, that he who afterward exhibited such great powers of memory learned his classical vocabularies and inflections only with the greatest labor, and, being chided by his father for his dullness, got up at four o'clock in the morning to give himself more time for the drill. He afterward added Hebrew to his linguistic acquirements, and gave himself object-lessons in mathematics by calculating the areas of familiar objects, taking the levels of the new road, and measuring the heights of the neighboring mountains. "Once upon a time" one of the papers containing some of his calculations was carried away by a gust of wind, and was supposed to be lost; but it was returned a few days afterward by a mountaineer, who said, "Here is a letter that came down from the sky, and must belong to the parsonage."

The enthusiasm awakened in him by the example of the Robinson boys was permanent, and was manifested in the interest he took in everything living. He attended to the milking of the goats, took upon himself the care of the bees and their swarms, and had collections of beetles and butterflies as early as 1822 or 1823. He was anxious to identify and classify his specimens, but on this subject his father could give him but little information and no scientific aid. He became acquainted with choir-director J. J. Blumer, of Glarus, who was the owner of a small collection in natural history and a few scientific books, and borrowed from him, October 4, 1823, Wilhelmi's "Description of Insects." The question now was how to make this treasure his own. His father advised him to copy out the most important parts of the book; and he wrote out, in five thick manuscript parts, the Coleoptera, Hemiptera, and Lepidoptera, illustrating them with drawings in the margins of copies of the figures in the book. In thankful recognition of the aid which this work gave him, and of the kindness of its owner, he some years afterward named the oldest fossil bird of Switzerland, which he found in the slates of Matt, after the musician, Protornis Blumeri. Now he could pursue his collecting with a good heart, and, with the co-operation of his brothers Samuel and Heinrich, he did so; and for many years no beetle, or butterfly, or caterpillar, was safe from their hands.

His attention was at first given wholly to animals, and chiefly to insects; and it was not till June, 1827, that any evidence appears in his diaries of his beginning to take an interest in plants; but from this time on botanical references are frequent. More than a year before this, in January, 1826, he had begun the record of meteorological observations, which he kept up three times a day for two and a half years till the middle of 1828, when he went to the University of Halle. Young Heer was accustomed to make frequent excursions to the mountains, accompanied usually by his father or his brothers. In this way he became acquainted with the entomology and botany of the whole canton, and enlarged his collections and made them objects of attraction. An acquaintance with Georg Spielberg, a botanist, who was conducting a high-school at Mollis, brought him an introduction to the learned Dr. Hegetschweiler, one of the most distinguished men of the confederation in that science; and through these connections, and by means of visits which he made with his father to the leading towns of Switzerland, he brought himself into relations with nearly all the scientific men of the country. Now he offered for sale a herbarium of two hundred and fifty Swiss Alpine plants, duly labeled, with which he hoped to obtain pocket-money for his journey to the university. As the time drew near for him to go there, he became more diligent in study. He assigned a task to every hour of the day, from four o'clock in the morning till seven o'clock in the evening. The most of the time was given to theology and church history. Two hours were allotted to botany, and one hour in the evening to the care of the goats and sheep.

He started for Halle on the 30th of September, 1828, carrying his plant-box filled with bulbs. His purpose was to study theology; but, while he gave due attention to the lectures on philosophy and metaphysics and the canon of Scripture, he formed personal relations with the botanists and entomologists and the specialist in ferns, and the zoölogists whose names may be found in the lists of the faculties of Halle of that time; and, while he still nursed his religious inclinations, he also kept up and cultivated and made to grow the taste for scientific investigation. His vacations gave him opportunities to make excursions of considerable length, which he improved to the increase of his scientific knowledge. One was upon the invitation of the naturalist Meyer, to Hamburg and Heligoland, where he saw the ocean for the first time; another was to the Harz Mountains. Toward the end of his career at the university, he accepted a call to teach pedagogy and botany at the school of the orphan-house. Fritsche, who was one of his pupils, says of his lectures, "We were of course struck with his foreign dialect, but we also took good notice that he understood his subject." His last excursion from the university was made to Berlin, where he met Ehrenberg the microscopist, Yon Chamisso the circumnavigator, and Schlechtendal the famous botanist, who already knew him well by name from Hegetschweiler's mention of him in his "Schweitzer Pflanzen."

Heer left the university in March, 1831, stood his examination in theology at St. Gall in April, preached his first sermon at Wolfhalden, and was ordained on the 10th of June. His father desired him to devote his life to teaching, and to become the head of a high-school which they would found. Heer himself preferred to take a parish, where his work might give him opportunities for continued scientific investigations. Before a decision was reached, his physical condition demanding recreation, he made some important excursions among the mountains, which were quite adventurous for that time. In January, 1832, he accepted an invitation from Herr Heinrich Escher-Zollikofer, of Zürich, to go and arrange his extensive entomological collection. This was the event that decided the course of his life. He became a member of the Physical Society of Zürich, and read before it his first paper, "On the Red Snow of the High Alps." He formed a connection with Julius Froebel, who afterward lectured and conducted German newspapers in the United States, and published with him in 1834 the first number of a geographical magazine—"Mitteilungen aus dem Gebiete der theoretischen Erdkunde"—of which four numbers, in all, were issued.

Heer had not been many months at Zurich when an invitation came to him to take the pastorate of the parish of Schwande. He was already expressing regret in his letters that his attention was being diverted from theology, and he seems to have suffered a painful hesitation between the possible duty of accepting this call and continuing in his scientific work. He submitted the question to Herr Escher, who replied that the field and influence of the scientific investigator, who had the whole world, was much broader than those of the pastor, which were confined to his parish or his canton. Moreover, the naturalist too can work for God's kingdom. There were many pious pastors, but pious naturalists were, according to his present knowledge, a tolerably rare plant, and therefore the more to be prized and the more necessary to the tribe of the learned. With these conflicting views troubling his mind, he was entertaining plans for a scientific journey to India and the Himalaya Mountains, when, in February, 1834, he was appointed a teacher of physics, botany, and mineralogy, in the High-School of Zürich. In October, 1835, he was appointed Professor Extraordinary of Botany and Entomology, in the same school, and his position and career were fixed for life. He became Professor of Botany in the university when it was founded, in 1852, and in the Polytechnicum in 1855. He founded the Botanic Garden of Zürich, and became its director, and became President of the Society of Agriculture and Horticulture in 1845. For twenty years he was a Rathsherr, or member of the Grand Council of the city. He was elected to the American Academy of Sciences in 1877.

The general character and value of Professor Heer's scientific work are expressed in the commendations passed upon it by the Marquis de Saporta and others, extracts from which are given at the beginning of the present sketch. His scientific publications, according to the list given in the "Botanisches Centralblatt" in 1884, are seventy-seven in number, besides the seven quarto volumes of the "Flora Fossilis Arctica," which comprise a considerable number of independent memoirs. They are in the departments of entomology, botany, and palæo-botany. Following shortly after his first published paper, already mentioned as communicated to the Physical Society of Zürich, were two memoirs published in his geographical magazine, on the geographical distribution of insects and plants in the Swiss Alps, the former paper of which was afterward expanded into a memoir on the Swiss Coleoptera. From this time on his labors were continuous; as M. de Saporta remarks, they touch and are interlinked, and nothing interrupts them. Beginning with the study of insects, as we have seen, he was led naturally to regard flowers, the habitual haunts of insects, and thence to the examination of the fossil insects and plants of Œningen, whence his labors expanded to embrace the fossil flora of the world. His attention was first directed to the tertiary beds of Œningen, by his friend Escher von der Linth. These beds are situated not far from Zürich, on the right bank of the Rhine, near where it issues from the Lake of Constance, and include in a series of thin sheets, like leaves of paper, innumerable impressions of insects and plants. Scheuchzer had found there, nearly a hundred years before, a skeleton which he took to be of one of the victims of the flood, but which Cuvier determined to be a salamander, and later naturalists to be a congener of species now existing in the fresh waters of Japan and in the American lakes. More than six hundred species of plants and a thousand insects have been found in these beds and described by Heer, the chief results of whose labors upon them were published between 1847 and 1853. He devoted three large works to accounts of the ancient flora and the geological past of Switzerland. The first was the "Flora Tertiaria Helvetiæ," which appeared 1855-1859, in three volumes, with one hundred and fifty-six plates; next was the "Urwelt der Schweitz," in 1865, which was translated into six languages; and the third was the "Flora Fossilis Helvetiæ" in one volume, with seventy plates. He passed the winter of 1854-'55 in Madeira, on account of his health, and on his return from there published a paper on the fossil plants of that island, and another on the probable origin of the existing flora and fauna of the Azores, Madeira, and the Canaries. In this paper, and in a work published in 1860 on tertiary climates in their relation to vegetation, as well as in parts of his larger works on Switzerland, he propounded his theory of the existence of the Continent of Atlantis, during the Miocene period; a theory to which he held steadfastly for many years, but which the later soundings have shown to be extremely improbable in fact, and his own researches to be not needed to account for the phenomena of the distribution of plants and animals over the earth.

In 1 862 Heer examined the fossil flora of the lignites of Bovey-Tracy in Devonshire, and published a memoir upon them in the "Philosophical Transactions." At about the same time, he published a paper in the "Journal of the Geological Society" on certain fossil plants of the Isle of Wight. As his fame grew, fossils were sent to him in masses to be examined from all parts of the world; and we find among his papers notes on the cretaceous phyllites of Nebraska, the floras of Moletein in Moravia, Ruedlinburg in Germany, the Baltic miocene of Prussia, of the lignites of Zsélythales in Hungary, of Andö in Norway, and "Contributions to the Fossil Flora of Portugal." All of these works, important as they were in themselves, were only leading up to the great work of his life—the investigation of the Arctic fossil flora and the deduction from it of a satisfactory theory of the distribution of life over the earth. According to Dr. Gray, his first essay in this domain—which he has made so peculiarly his own—was in a paper on certain fossil plants of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, published in 1865; and in 1868 he brought out the first of the series of memoirs upon the ancient floras of Arctic America, Greenland, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Arctic and Subarctic Asia, etc., which together make up the seven quarto volumes of the "Flora Fossilis Arctica," the last of which was finished only a few months before his death. According to M. de Saporta, he had been struck with the importance of the American element in what he called the Molassic flora of Switzerland. There was no question in it of vague analogies, but a number of dominant and characteristic species were represented by "homologues" or directly corresponding kinds now peculiar to North America, while there was nothing like them in Europe or the whole Eastern Continent, except as fossils. Among these plants were the sequoia of California, the cypress of Louisiana, the parasol palm of the Antilles, the tulip-tree, maples, and poplars, the European fossil forms of which were as like them as if they had been shaped upon living American trees as models. He saw in these resemblances, which implied that identical species were at some time in past ages diffused simultaneously through both continents, indications of ancient territorial connections. The substitution of the hypothesis of a common origin of life at the poles and its diffusion by migrations to the southward over all the continents, for the theory of Atlantis, which he had expounded in his earlier works, was of gradual growth, and was the direct result of his examinations of the Arctic fossil flora. In this he was struck by the abundance of the species of a southern and even tropical character, which he found in beds reaching far up toward the extreme north. On the evidence of such fossils was built the theory of a warm, moist climate prevailing in the Arctic as well as in the temperate and sub-tropical regions during the Tertiary period, which, suggested by Heer, has been and elaborated by De Saporta, and is avowed by Dr. Gray.

Heer never accepted the Darwinian theory of the origin of species by variation and natural selection. To it he objected, in general, that no new species had arisen within human knowledge; that no transitional forms had been discovered anywhere; and that it was inconsistent with the progress from simpler to more highly organized beings which he conceived to be the rule of development. To account for the changes that had evidently taken place during geological history, he supposed that, at certain undetermined epochs, species underwent changes, the completion of which occupied only a relatively short time, to be again consolidated and continue unchangeable till the moment when another crisis should bring on a new recasting.

The delicate health which marked his life during the period in which he was best known to science prevented Heer's making extensive explorations in person. Most of his time was spent in his study, examining the collections submitted to him by stronger and more active men, and more capable of enduring the fatigues of such works. But it is to him, M. de Saporta remarks, that we are indebted for our knowledge of the meaning of what such men discovered. Without him, active to his last hour, it would have taken a very long time for phytologists, in the absence of any concert of understanding, to accomplish the summarizing of their aggregate work which he did so successfully, and with so much clearness and intelligence. He was a sufferer from pulmonary disease, and during the last twelve years of his life did much of his work in bed, having his papers and specimens arranged upon a table before him, while his daughter acted as his scribe. Having finished the last volume of his "Fossil Arctic Flora" in the summer of 1883, he was taken to a sheltered retreat on Lake Geneva, for the recovery of his exhausted strength; and he died at his brother's house. It is said of him by his biographer in "Science," and repeated by Dr. Gray, that "a man more lovable, more sympathetic, and a life more laborious and pure, one could scarcely imagine."