Werner | Abraham Gottlob | 1750-1817 | German geologist, inspector and teacher, Freiberg Mining Academy

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Abraham Gottlob Werner was born in Wehrau, Upper Lusatia, now Polish Osiecznica, on 25 September 1749. He had a boy's interest in rocks and minerals, which his father indulged while also arranging private tuition in other things and packing him off to the Waisenschule at Bunzlau (Boleslawiec). Werner's father was inspector of the Duke of Solm's ironworks, and he wished his son to join him there one day. Abraham clerked in the foundry during his 'teens, and began his managerial studies in Freiburg's new Bergakademie. He jumped ship to join the Saxon mining service instead of returning to the Duke of Solm's employ. He began the required course in jurisprudence at the University of Leipzig, but left without a degree once again, still distracted by mineralogy and lately historical linguistics. Geology and language, he felt, were records of analogous importance in the history of man. He freelanced a 1773 book on how to recognize fossils, and this, with the intervention of an older friend, finally got him a solid job, a teaching appointment in the mining curriculum back at the Bergakademie, along with curatorship of the mineral collection there. He stayed at these twin posts for his remaining 42 years. He died in Dresden on 30 June 1817.

Werner the mineralogist, recognizing that chemistry and crystallography were not sophisticated enough to help establish a mineralogical system, worked up simple descriptive standards of classification instead, sure enough for the time being that external characteristics were not unrelated to chemical makeup. This was worth doing, he insisted, because mineralogy itself was the starting point for all study of the the earth. He discovered eight new minerals of his own in the course of all this. Werner the geologist was the first to work out a complete schema for the earth's structure, and in particular, the history of its formation. His account of things, the work of a nominal Pietist but a temperamental deist, avoided the biblically-charged problem of the flood. At least he was neptunist, not a vulcanist, observed traditionalists, who were mostly pacified. He believed that all rock was once sediment or precipitate in a universal ocean. His career's biggest controversy was with other geologists, the great debate over whether basalt is of aqueous or volcanic origin.


K.E. Pabst von Ohain (fl. 1774), friend and former teacher, who got Werner his faculty job at the Bergakademie, and fellow mineral collector. W.A. Lampadius (fl. 1806), teacher of chemistry whom he brought to his new chemical lab at the Bergakademie; M.H. Klaproth (1743-1817), founder of quantitative mineral analysis, in close contact with Werner. Famous students included geologists and mineralogists like Leopold von Buch (1774-1853), Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), Jean d'Aubuisson de Voisins (1769 - 1841), Robert Jameson (1774-1854), and Friedrich Mohs (1773-1839); also romantic philosophers and writers like Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert (1780-1860), Henrik Steffens (1773 - 1845), and Friedrich von Hardenberg, or "Novalis" (1772-1801).

Father, Abraham David Werner, iron foundry chief. Mother Regina Holstein Werner. He himself never married.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Von den äusserlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien , ( 1774)

"Von den verschiedernerley Mineraliensammlungen" , (1778)

"Kurze Klassificakation und Beschreibung der verschiedenen Gebirgsarten" , (1786)

Abrahm Gottlob Werners letztes Mineral-System, ( 1817)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

Elected to 22 scientific societies, including these:

Geological Society of London

Institut National de France

Institut Impérial de France

Imperial Society of Physics and Medicine of Moscow

Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences

Royal Stockholm Academy of Sciences

Wernerian Society of Edinburgh


List of sources for the biographical information:

Gillespie, CC, ed, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, (New York , Scribner's, 1970-1990), s.v. "Werner, Abraham Gottlob" by Alexander Ospovat