Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg – Father of Micropaleontology

Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg

Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg

On April 19, 1795German naturalist, zoologist, comparative anatomist, geologist, and microscopist Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg was born. Ehrenberg was one of the most famous and productive scientists of his time. He has been called the founder of micropaleontology (the study of fossil microorganisms). He held that animals, of any size down to the tiniest, have organ systems in common, including muscles, reproductive organs, and stomachs.

Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg studied theology at the University of Leipzig. Later on, he continued his education in Berlin to study medicine and natural sciences. Ehrenberg also befriended the famous explorer Alexander von Humboldt. In 1818, Ehrenberg completed his doctoral dissertation on fungi, Sylvae mycologicae Berolinenses.

At the University of Berlin, Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg was appointed professor of medicine and two years later, in 1829, he accompanied Humboldt through eastern Russia to the Chinese frontier. Ehrenberg started to focus his studies on microscopic organisms, which back then then had not been systematically studied. Ehrenberg proceded to examine watersamples, soil, sediment, blowing dust and rock and he described thousands of new species. For instance, he described flagellates such as Euglena, ciliates such as Paramecium aurelia and Paramecium caudatum, and many fossils, in nearly 400 scientific publications.

In particular, Ehrenberg was enthusiastic about a unicellular group of protists called diatoms, but he also studied, and named, many species of radiolaria, foraminifera and dinoflagellates. The studied of Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg highly contributed to today’s knowledge on microorganisms of certain geological formations, especially of the chalk, and of the marine and freshwater accumulations. Further, it was prior to Ehrenberg’s studies not known that considerable masses of rock were composed of minute forms of animals or plants and he further demonstrated that the phosphorescence of the sea was due to organisms.

Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg died in 1876 and his collections of microscopic organisms were deposited in the Museum für Naturkunde at the University of Berlin. It includes around 40,000 microscope preparations, 5,000 raw samples, 3,000 pencil and ink drawings, and nearly 1,000 letters of correspondence. During his lifetime, Ehrenberg was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, a foreign member of the Royal Society of London, and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He further won the Wollaston Medal, the highest award granted by the Geological Society of London as well as the Leeuwenhoek Medal in 1877.

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