Nikolaus Michael Oppel

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Nikolaus Michael Oppel , also Nicolaus, (born December 7, 1782 in Schönficht , Plößberg , Upper Palatinate , † February 16, 1820 in Munich ) was a German zoologist ( herpetologist ) and illustrator.

life and work

Oppel was born in Schönficht, which then belonged to Bavaria, as the son of the chairman of the local peasantry. He was privately taught in Latin by the pastor and first attended high school and then the Lyceum in Amberg , where he received drawing lessons and became interested in zoology by reading the natural history of Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon . He gained the attention of high-ranking patrons through his talent and drawings. From 1807 to 1809 he was studying in Paris at the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle thanks to a scholarship from the Bavarian King Maximilian I Joseph , who was then with France, and supported by Karl von Moll and Maximilian von Montgelas . At the Paris Museum of Natural History he was assistant to the herpetologist André Marie Constant Duméril and had contacts with the naturalists in Paris Georges Cuvier , Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck , Alexander von Humboldt , Bernard Germain Lacépède and Pierre André Latreille . He partly worked for them as an illustrator, and excellent watercolors of reptiles from this period have been preserved in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. Apparently he also made a trip through France, Italy and Spain in 1809. After his return he became adjunct and then second curator at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. After Johann Baptist von Spix was appointed curator, he was only a draftsman. In addition, he was from 1817 as successor to Joseph Ritter von Petzl Professor of Natural History at the Lyceum in Munich. In 1819 he married the Frenchwoman Eugenie Roussel from Argenteuil, with whom he had a daughter. He died in 1820 from inhaling poisonous gases while making etchings.

He was particularly concerned with taxonomy and comparative anatomy of reptiles and amphibians. He realized that sneaks of the genus Anguis and Ophisaurus ( glass snakes) are not snakes but lizards and caecilians belong to the amphibians and are therefore not snakes either. In contrast to his Bavarian colleague and competitor Spix, he was not a supporter of contemporary natural philosophy, but a sober description of nature, in which (as one of his poems suggests) he saw a divine order at work.

His collection of several hundred watercolors of reptiles and amphibians, created in Paris, was to be incorporated into a natural history of amphibians and reptiles, of which only the magazine about crocodiles appeared in 1817 (with Friedrich Tiedemann , Joseph Liboschitz (1783–1824)).

He not only worked as a draftsman and painter, but also as an engraver and probably as a lithographer.

He supported Alexander von Humboldt in Paris with the publication of his travelogues and Humboldt named a butterfly discovered by Oppel after him ( Oppelia ).

In his book on reptiles of 1811 he led the order Squamata (Squamata), the families of sea turtles (Cheloniidae) and snakes (Colubridae) and the subfamily pit vipers (Crotalinae) and several species of reptiles.


  • The orders, families and genera of the reptiles as a prodrome of a natural history of the same. Munich, Commission at Joseph Lindauer, 1811
    • The work was published in German / Latin as well as in French in 1811 in four parts in the Annales du Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle and as a separate print: Sur la classification des reptiles. Paris 1811
  • with Joseph Liboschitz, Friedrich Tiedemann: Natural history of the amphibians. Issue 1: Crocodile genus. Heidelberg: Engelmann 1817


Web links

The estate in the Bavarian State Library