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Martin Fritz Glaessner

1906 - 1989

Martin Glaessner, paleontologist, micropaleontologist and geologist, was the first scientist to describe the pre-Cambrian Ediacaran fossils in Australia.

Martin Glaessner was born in Aussig, now part of the Czech Republic. He became interested in natural history when he was young. However, due to family pressures, he studied law as well as natural history when he entered the University of Vienna in 1925. Glaessner received two doctorates, the first in law in 1929 and the second, in Geology and Paleontology, in 1931. Glaessner had became a research associate of the Museum of Natural History in Vienna in 1923 (when he was 16) and published three papers before he was 20. He was a research associate at the British Museum (Natural History) in London in 1930-1931.

When he was 26, he was invited by the State Petroleum Research Institute of the Soviet Union to come to the USSR and organize its research in micropaleontology. Two years later, he became a Senior Research Officer of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR at the micro-paleontological laboratory at the Institute of Mineral Fuels. In 1937, the Soviet Union required all foreign residents to either become citizens or leave. Even though Glaessner had, in 1936, married a Russian, he chose to move back to Vienna.

Because his father was Jewish, Glaessner arrested in 1937 during the general harassment of the Jews by the German authorities. Fortunately, George Martin Lees, Chief Geologist of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later to become British Petroleum) had offered Glaessner a job and he was able to leave Austria and move to London. One of Glaessner’s assignments was to continue writing Principles of Micropalaeontology, which he had begun in Moscow.

The other assignment was to set up a micro-paleontological laboratory for the Australasian Petroleum Company in Port Moresby, New Guinea. During World War II, Glaessner joined the Australian Army and was directed to continue his geological and paleontological work as it was deemed essential. He produced a comprehensive report on work in Papua and New Guinea, a geological map on behalf of the Australian Army, work on samples from the Middle East on behalf of Irak Petroleum Company, and completion of his book. The Far East is a very difficult part of the world to get good paleontological data. Not only is the area geologically complex, but obtaining the fossils is physically very difficult and time consuming. Also, the fossils tend to differ from those in Europe—where the standard geological time scale was constructed. Glaessner wrote a “Field Guide to the Study of Larger Foraminifera” to assist the field parties of the Australasian Petroleum Company (where he was Chief Paleontologist) in identifying strata using a hand lens. He also co-authored a number of other papers and book chapters, but much of his work remained in the company archives as it was important for petroleum exploration.

In his spare time, Glaessner did field work in the Port Moresby district where he was living. In his free time he also studied evolutionary relationships based on anatomical similarities and geological distribution. Glaessner began “Principles of Micropalaeontology”, in Moscow as lectures to the Petroleum Institute and also the Paleontological Institute at the University of Moscow in 1936-37, continued them in London in 1938 and finished in Melbourne in 1943 (then published 1945). In it he surveyed the main groups of microfossils their geological succession, environmental significance and importance to petroleum exploration. With the book he made major contributions to the taxonomy of foraminifera.

In 1950, Glaessner jointed the University of Adelaide. With his graduate students, Glaessner established a research program on the Cenozoic sedimentary basins and fossils of southern Australia. In 1957 he became a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. He continued in the 50’s to publish paleontological papers, but changed his focus from the Cenozoic to the Precambrian. In 1964 he became the chair of the Geology and Paleontology department at the university. He also wrote a paper for the first edition of Micropalaeontology in 1965. Glaessner disposed most of his micropaleontological library when he retired. The rest of bequeathed his research and library to the South Australian Museum

Glaessner made the first connection between the Charnia fossils found in 1957 in England and earlier, disputed Precambrian fossil finds, such as those found in the Ediacara Hills in Australia. Glaessner concluded from his studies of the Ediacarian fossils that they include phylogenitically advanced animals and that they were in genera also found in Precambrian fossil records of South Africa and England and thus were early antecedents of modern life forms. And he, along with his colleague Preston Cloud proposed that the Ediacarian be recognized as the initial period of the Phanerozoic. In 1984 Glaessner’s “The Dawn of Animal Life”, was published.

Glaessner received the Lyell Medal of the Geological Society, the Walcott Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1982, and the Suess Medal of the Geological Society of Australia. He became a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1957 and was on its Council from 1960 to 1962. He was a Chairman of the National Committee of Geological Sciences from 1962 to 1977. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1985. He was an Honorary Research Associate at the American Museum of Natural History from 1950 to 1970.

Major Publications

Crustacea Decapoda (1930)
Principles of Micropalaeontology (1945)
Field Guide to the Study of Larger Foraminifera
Time-stratigraphy and the Miocene Epoch
Stratigraphic nomenclature in Australia
Three foraminiferal zones in the Tertiary of Australia
The Dawn of Animal Life (1984)


Adapted From: Australian Academy of Science Biographical Memoirs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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