Childhood & Early Life
He was born on May 5, 1833, in Carlsruhe, Prussian Silesia, in to Karl Richthofen and Ferdinande Richthofen.
He attended the Catholic Gymnasium in Breslau (at present Wroclaw) to complete his secondary education. Thereafter he enrolled at the ‘University of Breslau’ in 1850 to study geology.
After a couple of years he joined the ‘University of Berlin’’ from where he completed his graduation in 1856.
Around 1857 he joined a team of distinguished geologists and embarked on a geological tour of the Vorarlberg Alps and the Alps of Tyrol. He was designated the duty to compile the combined report while carrying on the survey. His independent publication on Alpine geology ‘Geognostische Beschreibung der Umgegend von Predazzo…’ (1860) received accolades from all over. He efficiently detailed about the Triassic succession in the South Tirol as also the circumstances that led to its formation. Contrary to the earlier catastrophic perception, Richthofen held slow crustal movements as the reason for alterations in the form of terrain and the tectonic disturbances.
He furthered his studies to the trachytic mountain ranges of the Carpathians in Transylvania with the support of the ‘Austrian Imperial Geological Institute’.
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He joined the Prussian government mission, the ‘Eulenburg Expedition’ in 1860 as a geologist and till 1862 travelled Southeast Asia and the Far East including Japan, Ceylon, Celebes, Taiwan, the Philippines, Java, Burma and Siam. However nothing of significance came out of the expedition, and most of his records and collections were lost.
In June 1862, he went to California, United States and till 1868 worked there as a geologist and reported on mineral wealth and gold strikes to German newspapers. He identified a clear-cut series of igneous rocks, from propylite to trachyte in the ‘Sierra Nevada’ and the ‘Rocky Mountains’. Some such geological expeditions of Richthofen led to the discovery of goldfields.
Although he strived to explore China earlier, the ongoing ‘Taiping rebellion’ (1850-64), the civil war in China posed a problem making the country inaccessible. It was only in September 1868, four years post the civil war that he could succeed in his mission of visiting the country.
The China trip was initially financed by the ‘Bank of California’ and afterwards by the ‘Chamber of Commerce of Shanghai’ and in return he had to send reports in English regarding the economic resources of the regions he explored.
Till 1872 he explored eleven out of eighteen Chinese provinces and compiled a series of reports of such expeditions, which were published as ‘Letters on China’ (Shanghai, 1870–72). These reports were the first to suggest the significance of the Shantung coalfield and also attached prominence on the commercial potentiality of Tsingtao, a port that was later occupied by the Germans.
Richthofen was the first one to figure out that the fine Aeolian dust, which blew from the deserts of the west, deposited gradually in China over the centuries. It was the origin of the loess soil deposits of northern China. He also spotted the dried-up lake bed of Lop Nur in China.
He returned to Germany in 1872 and for the next 33 years he mostly spent in lecturing and writing on China and advocating in support of geography in the universities of Germany.
In 1875 he was inducted by the ‘University of Bonn’ as a Professor of Geology, however he could undertake his professional commitments only in 1879 as he was fully engrossed with his work on compiling the first volume and a part of the second on China.
In 1877 he coined the terms ‘Seidenstraße’ and ‘Seidenstraßen’ meaning ‘Silk Road’ or ‘Silk Route’ for the trade routes that connected the western world and the eastern world from China to the Mediterranean Sea.
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In 1883 he began to serve the ‘University of Leipzig’ as a Professor of Geography.
From 1886 till his death he remained the Professor of Geography at the ‘Friedrich Wilhelm University’ of Berlin.
Many of his students including Sven Hedin, Alfred Philippson, Wilhelm Sievers and Arthur Berson became eminent and some of them held prominent chairs in geography.
For several years he served the ‘German Geographical Society’ as the President.
He acted as rector of the ‘University of Berlin’ in 1903 and delivered a noteworthy address titled ‘Triebkräfte und Richtungen der Erdkunde im neunzehnten Jahrhundert’. He was on the verge of completing the ‘Museum für Meereskunde’ at the university during the later stage of his life, which was finally completed by his successor Albrecht Penck.
He also founded the ‘Berlin Hydrographical Institute’.
His German publications included ‘Die Kalkalpen von Vorarlberg und Nordtirol’ (from 1859 to 1861); ‘Die Metallproduktion Kaliforniens’ (1865); ‘China, Ergebnisse eigner Reisen und darauf gegründeter Studien’ (China: The results of my travels and the studies based thereon, 1877–1912) five volumes and atlas; and ‘Führer für Forschungsreisende’ (A guide for the traveling researcher, 1886).
The English publications of Richthofen included ‘Comstock Lode: Its Character, and the Probable Mode of Its Continuance in Depth’ in1866; ‘Principles of the Natural System of Volcanic Rocks’ in 1867; and ‘Letters to the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce’ from 1869 to 1872.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1879 he got married to Irmgard von Richthofen.
He was an uncle of Manfred von Richthofen, famously known as the ‘Red Baron’, an ace German fighter pilot.
On October 6, 1905, he succumbed to a sudden stroke in Berlin at the age of 72.