Werner, Abraham Gottlob (1749-1817), a German geologist, helped geology gain recognition as an important branch of science. He developed a classification scheme for minerals and advanced a controversial theory about how rocks were formed on Earth.
Werner taught at the School of Mines in Freiburg, Germany, and was instrumental in making the school a leading institution. Scholars such as Baron von Humboldt and Leopold von Buch came to Freiburg to hear Werner's lectures, which offered easy-to-understand explanations of difficult scientific ideas. In his 42 years of teaching, Werner trained a number of prominent geologists and mineralogists. His work combined several fields, including mineralogy, geology, crystallography, and chemistry. His interest in natural history led to his work on the origins of the earth's crust. For his creation of a complete geological system, he is considered the father of historical geology.
One of Werner's most significant contributions was in the field of mineralogy. When he was 25 years old, he published a book that introduced a new method to identify and classify minerals. He provided external characteristics, definitions, and examples. During his career, he discovered eight minerals and named 26. He wrote the first scientific description of asbestos, a group of soft, threadlike mineral fibers. He also coined the word graphite —from the Greek meaning to write—for a carbon mineral that is used in lead pencils.
Werner was also interested in geology and how the earth was formed. He theorized that at one time the earth had been completely covered with oceans and that as sediments and chemicals in the water fell to the ocean floor, they formed layers of rock, which eventually became the land. Over time, water from the ocean evaporated, exposing the land and leaving pockets of water in low-lying areas. Werner's ideas had many followers and they came to be known as Neptunists, after Neptune, the Roman god of the water. But Werner's theory was not without opposition. Scottish geologist James Hutton had a much different theory. Hutton led a group known as the Plutonists, named for Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld. The Plutonists held that rock formed with the aid of heat instead of water. During the late 1700's, there was a great deal of debate in the scientific community as to which group was correct. Although some of Hutton's ideas were later modified, scientists in the early 1800's were able to prove that his theory was more accurate, and Werner's was discredited.
Werner was the second child, and only son, born to Abraham David and Regina (Holstein) Werner. Werner's father was an inspector at the Duke of Solm's ironworks. Before entering school at age 9, Werner was taught at home by his father and a private tutor. In 1764, Werner's mother died and his father arranged for a clerical position at the ironworks. Five years later, Werner entered the Freiberg School of Mines with the intention of preparing for a job in management at the ironworks. However, he changed his course and decided to study law for a career in the Saxon mining service. In 1771, he transferred to the University of Leipzig, where he initially took classes in law. However, after his first two years, he became increasingly interested in the study of the history of languages. He also began pursuing mineralogy studies, a topic that his father had encouraged since he was a boy. Werner left Leipzig in 1774 without earning a degree.
After publication of Werner's first book on mineralogy in 1774, a former teacher of Werner's recommended him for a position as teacher of mining and curator of the mineral collection at the Freiberg School of Mines. Werner began the job in 1775 and remained there until his death in 1817. Throughout his career, Werner continued to revise his mineral classification scheme, with revisions published in 1789, 1816, and 1817. In the earliest version he deals with 183 species, while in the last he covers 317. The first half of the 1800's saw several English translations of his books published.
Werner was a highly regarded scientist who had great influence throughout Europe. He belonged to a number of organizations, including the Geological Society of London, the Institut National and the Institut Impérial of France, the Imperial Society of Physics and Medicine of Moscow, the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences, and the Wernerian Society of Edinburgh.
When he died, Werner left most of his estate to Bergakademie Freiberg, the school where he had taught for his entire adult life.