Plate Tectonics and People

Eduard Suess

Print Print

Biographical information

Born August 20, 1831 in London, England and educated at the University of Prague, Eduard Suess died April 26, 1914 in Vienna, Austria.    In 1852 Suess started working as a clerk in the Imperial Geological Museum in Vienna; by 1857 he had published scientific papers, mapped part of the Alps and was appointed the first extraordinary professor of geology at the University of Vienna.  He received full professorship in 1867 and remained in this position until 1901.  After being appointed an honorary Burgess, he spent 30 years in the Austrian Parliament.  Perhaps his most famous work is the four volume book (1883-1909) titled Das Antiltz der Erde (The Faces of the Earth).  

Specific contributions to plate tectonic theory or geophysics

Suess is credited for generating many of the concepts that led to the theory of plate tectonics and paleogeography.  Though The Faces of the Earth did not include much original work, Seuss demonstrated a great ability to synthesize work into the bigger picture.   He combined this ability with hands–on knowledge of the Austrian Alps and paleo-botany, specifically the findings of Glossopteris (an extinct fern-looking tree) in India, South Africa, South America and Australia to propose a past super-continent called Gondwanaland.  Additionally, with his exploration of the Alps, notably around the Dachstein region, Suess understood that there was lateral movement to the rocks over long distances.  Not being able to fully explain lateral movement, Suess supported the common theory of the time that Earth was shrinking due to lose of interior heat (geosyncline theory), he therefore believed lateral movement resulted from the shrinking. Yet in Die Enstehung der Alpen (The Origin of the Alps, 1857) Suess argued that horizontal movement was the dominant force in creating the Alps.  It is interesting to note that Suess died in 1914 while Wegener’s famous Continental drift theory was presented in 1912.  Just as today as we stand on the shoulders of giants, Wegener built from Suess and from the natural world’s rebuttal of a shrinking Earth through the discovery of radioactive decay.


                                                                           Glossopteris range

                                                   Diagram of Gondwanaland showing locations of the fossil Glossopteris in dark green.

Other interesting scientific contributions

- Suess is responsible for the Vienna Hochquellenwasserleitung (mountain springs water pipeline) that is still in use today. 

- Within geology Suess coined the terms shield, biosphere, Tethys, Panthalassa and eustasy. 

Cool stuff you should know

- Arriving in Vienna in 1845, Suess earned a reputation as a student activist that associated him with bad company.  It is believed that Wilhelm von Haidinger (1795-1871), the founding father of the Austrian Geological Survey, used his influence to protect young Suess.  Suess spent his over 30 years in political office maintaining stances against privilege. 

- Eduard Suess was a pioneer in the practice of ecology.  


Blog at World Press (November 14, 2011).  Thoughts of Mind.    Retrieved from (

Grotzinger, J., Jordan, T.H., Press, F., & Siever, R. (2007).  Understanding Earth (5th ed.).  New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company. 

Nield, T. (2007). Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wikipedia (n.d.)  Edward Suess, 1869.  Retrieved from