Eduard Suess

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Eduard Sueß, lithograph by Josef Kriehuber , 1869
Portrait of Eduard Suess (without photographer, without year)
Burial site in the Marz cemetery

Eduard Suess (born August 20, 1831 in London , † April 26, 1914 in Vienna ) was an Austrian geologist and politician of the 19th century and was known as an expert on the tectonic structure of the Alps . Two major paleo-geographical discoveries can be traced back to him: the former supercontinent Gondwana and the Tethys .


Karl Adolph Eduard Suess was born in London into the large family of the Saxon Protestant merchant Adolph Sueß (1797–1862) and his wife Eleonore Friederike Zdekauer (1806–1884). When he reached the age of three, the family moved first to Prague , where more siblings were born, and 11 years later to Vienna . He was interested in geology at an early age and at the age of 19, as an assistant in the Hof-Naturalien-Cabinet in Vienna, he published his first thesis paper on the geology of Karlovy Vary .

In 1857 he was appointed professor at the University of Vienna - without a doctorate or habilitation - initially for paleontology , and in 1862 for geology. Carl Emanuel Burckhardt was a student of Suess . In addition to his work as a university professor, he was also active as a politician in the Vienna City Council and as a member of the Liberals in the Lower Austrian state parliament . In these functions he primarily operated the Viennese Danube regulation and the construction of the first Viennese spring water pipeline . For this reason he also received the honorary citizenship of Vienna , which at that time was mainly reserved for the nobles . A bust by the Hochstrahlbrunnen on Schwarzenbergplatz in Vienna reminds of this. From 1898 to 1911 he was President of the Academy of Sciences in Vienna.

Eduard Suess was buried in Márcfalva (today March ) near Mattersburg in the year of his death .

His son Franz Eduard Suess (1867-1941) also became a geologist and professor at the Technical University in Prague and at the University of Vienna. His grandson Hans Eduard Suess (1909-1993) became a chemist and nuclear physicist and became a professor at the University of California in La Jolla .


Since 1857 he gradually began to develop his theses about the formation of the Alps. In a further development of the geosynclinal theory of the North American James Dwight Dana , he came to the conclusion that the Alps were essentially formed by slow lateral narrowing movements of the earth's crust , such as folding and thrusting , in this case an asymmetrical movement of the rock layers to the north. Like Dana, the driving force was the shrinking of the earth's crust due to the cooling of the earth's body. So far, the European geologists, following James Hutton and Leopold von Buch , had mostly believed that the mountain ranges v. a. by vertically acting volcanic forces from the subsoil. However, Suess considered volcanism to be a consequence of mountain formation ( orogenesis ), and not its cause. He explained the asymmetry of the mountain ranges by the slipping of the rock layers onto the sunken foreland.

Together with Karl Junker, Suess planned the first Viennese high spring water pipeline , which opened in 1873 and has since provided Vienna with drinking water from the Rax - Schneeberg area .

In the further course of his career since 1878, Suess tried a large-scale summary of the geological knowledge of his time, considering the entire shape of the oceans and continents with their mountain ranges. Lyell's old “elevator tectonics” (slow ups and downs of the mainland masses, with correspondingly slow erosion and flooding) he considered unsuitable since he was concerned with the complex tectonics of the Alps. Instead, like Élie de Beaumont a few decades earlier, he tried to connect his tectonic model with the evolutionary history of the earth as it had been handed down in the sedimentary rocks all over the world. However, he did this in a much more differentiated way: Suess assumed that the collapse of an ocean basin would cause a worldwide fall in sea levels ( regression ). This then leads to increased erosion of the exposed mainland, which in turn leads to increased entry of sediments into the oceans until they are filled, and this ultimately to a renewed rise in sea level ( transgression ). With the introduction of the concept of eustatic sea level fluctuations (which is still in use today) , he provided a plausible explanation of why different geological units, such as the Jurassic , Chalk , etc., have a similar shape worldwide and can be correlated with one another.

In contrast to Dana, Suess saw the oceans as relatively young and changeable structures, and not as ancient, primordial collapse basins that have existed since the first crust formation of the earth's body. Suess' statement “It is the collapse of the globe that we are present” became the core of his geological worldview.

Based on such considerations, Suess came to the conclusion that Africa and Europe were once closely linked and that the northern Alps had once been the bed of an ocean of which the Mediterranean was only a remnant. Although larger parts of this thesis are no longer accepted today (among other things because the theory of plate tectonics had not yet been developed in Suess' time), his thesis was so close to the facts that the discovery of the Tethys Ocean is ascribed to him , to which he gave this name in 1893.

In his discussion about the structure of the Earth's interior, Suess also used the abbreviations derived from the main components


His other important discoveries include the fact that a certain genus of fern Glossopteris can be found in fossils in South America, Africa and India ( at that time, Suess could not have known that this genus of ferns also occurs in Antarctic fossils). His explanation for this fact was that these three continents had once been united as a "supercontinent". He called this "Gondwana" (which means "Land of the Gond ") or "Gondwana Land". In doing so, he contradicted the prevailing opinion that identical or closely related species had migrated from one continent to another across isthmuses like those of Panama. He believed that the crust between these continents had sunk in the course of the Tertiary , i.e. that the land bridges had previously made out entire continents. He was not yet aware that the land masses were drifting apart , but he was the first to understand that the East African rift must have been formed as a result of lateral expansion movements that led to the thinning of the earth's crust and the formation of a rift .

The regional chronostratigraphic level of the Sarmatian ( Miocene , Neogene ) used in the central Paratethys area was first published by him in 1866. Nikolaj Barbot de Marny apparently suggested this name in a letter to Eduard Suess; the letter itself has not survived. In the work of 1866 Eduard Suess therefore explicitly noted that Barbot de Marny was co-authorship of the name Sarmat (ium).


Monument on Schwarzenbergplatz in Vienna

In 1883 Suess published a summary of his ideas in the work Das Antlitz der Erde , which was for many years a valued textbook in geology. In this work, Suess introduced, in addition to the terms lithosphere and hydrosphere , also the term biosphere , which was later developed by unorthodox thinkers such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin or the geochemist Wladimir Wernadski . The preoccupation with the ubiquitous role of living organisms on the geological development of the earth, and the complex interactions between self-regulating cycles, such as the rock cycle , the water cycle in the atmosphere and in the sea, the food cycle , etc., ultimately led to such controversial ideas like the Gaia theory .

In a later edition of his work from 1904, Suess also tried to find naturalistic explanations for the biblical Flood report: he considered the flood to be the tragic coincidence of a seismic event with a tropical storm at the southern end of the Persian Gulf and a tsunami , the survivor in seaworthy Boats could have washed up into the mountainous regions of what is now Iraq. He attributed the breaking of the wells of the great deep (1 Gen 7:11) to the well-known phenomenon of springs in the floodplains of large rivers, which suddenly spew out more water during an earthquake.

Suess' ideas about the sinking of the earth's crust into new ocean basins and the possible connection between the various continents were widely received. It was also used by esotericists like Helena Blavatsky or private scholars and publicists like Ignatius Donnelly , e.g. B. to explain and further interpret a real core of the Atlantis saga and other hypothetical continents.

In 1937 the South African geologist Alexander Du Toit transferred Tethys and Gondwana in Suess' name to the conditions in Alfred Wegener's continental drift theory. Du Toit's name Laurasia for the former supercontinent north of the Tethys goes back to Suess' name "Laurentia" for the area we now know as the Canadian Shield . The name Laurentia was transferred to the geological continent Laurentia in 1977 by a group of authors around Alfred M. Ziegler . The names SiMa and SiAl, used by Wegener for oceanic and continental crust , were also first coined by Suess.


For his services to geology, Eduard Suess was awarded the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1896 . According to him, which was Suess Glacier in East Antarctic Victoria Land , the Mount Suess in Transantarctic Mountains , the Mars crater Suess and the lunar crater Suess named.

Since 1880 he was a corresponding member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and since December 1889 of the Académie des Sciences (from 1900 external member), since 1898 member of the National Academy of Sciences and since 1900 external member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences . In 1901 he became an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg , after he had been elected a corresponding member in 1887. The Royal Society of Edinburgh he belonged since 1905 as an honorary member ( Honorary Fellow at). In 1894 he was chairman of the Society of German Natural Scientists and Doctors . In 1910 he became honorary chairman of the Geological Association .

In 1928, the Suessdenkmal designed by Franz Seifert was erected in the front park of the Schwarzenberg Palace (Schwarzenbergplatz) in the 3rd district of Vienna , near the Hochstrahlbrunnen built to complete the first Viennese high spring pipeline . (Suess played a major role in the construction of this aqueduct.) Removed during the Second World War, the monument was located at a different location from 1951 to 1969.

The Eduard Sueß commemorative coin of the Austrian Geological Society is named in his honor.

Street names

In 1947, Eduard-Sueß-Gasse in Vienna Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus (15th district) was named after him. The street had been called Sueßgasse until 1938 , but it was originally named after the leather manufacturer and benefactor Friedrich Sueß (born 1833), a younger brother of Eduard. After the death of Eduard Suess in 1914, the street name was honored, but this was canceled from December 9, 1938. The street was then called Penckgasse.

Other streets in Linz , St. Pölten , Marz and Hirschwang on the Rax were named after Eduard Suess.

On August 20, 2014, the Tethysgasse street sign was unveiled along a short traffic area that connects Praterstrasse and Afrikanergasse at the level of Eduard Suess' house where he died (Afrikanergasse 9). It is reminiscent of the naming of the ocean Tethys by Eduard Suess. His birthplace at 4 Duncan Terrace, London N1 , was given a plaque by the Geological Society of London.


  • To the knowledge of the Stringocephalus Burtini Defrance . 1853, PDF on ZOBODAT
  • About the brachiopods of the Kössen strata . 1854, digitized at
  • The soil of the city of Vienna . 1862.
  • The formation of the Alps . 1875.
  • The face of the earth , 3 volumes. 1883-1909; 1904–1924, digitized at
  • Memories . 1916, digitized at


Web links

Commons : Eduard Suess  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Klaus Taschwer , A scientist as a benefactor of Vienna , Der Standard , April 24, 2014
  2. Endre Dudich: Relations between the kk Imperial Geological Institute in Vienna and the Hungarian Geology from 1867 to 1918 . (in: Abh. d. Geol. Bundesanst., Vienna (56/1) 1999, p. 68)
  3. M. Fufajew: E. Suess - father of modern tectonics. In: How mountains are formed. ( Memento of October 31, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF; 222 kB)
  4. ^ List of members since 1666: Letter S. Académie des sciences, accessed on March 6, 2020 (French).
  5. ^ Foreign members of the Russian Academy of Sciences since 1724: Suess, Eduard. Russian Academy of Sciences, accessed March 6, 2020 (Russian).
  6. ^ Fellows Directory. Biographical Index: Former RSE Fellows 1783–2002. (PDF file) Royal Society of Edinburgh, accessed April 14, 2020 .
  7. ^ Felix Czeike : Historisches Lexikon Wien, Volume 5, Vienna 1997, ISBN 3-218-00547-7 , p. 397.
  8. ^ Official website of the Eduard Sueß commemorative coin