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Glaessner, Martin Fritz (1906–1989)

by Bernard O'Neil

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Martin Fritz Glaessner (1906-1989), geologist and palaeontologist, was born on 25 December 1906 at Aussig an der Elbe,Bohemia, Austro-Hungarian Empire (Ústí nad Labem, Czech Republic), only child of Arthur Glaessner, chemist, and his wife Luise, née Feigl. As a child in Vienna Martin became interested in geology and palaeontology; by the age of 16 he was a research associate at the Museum of Natural History and by 20 had published three papers on fossil crabs. Having matriculated from Währing secondary school, in 1925 he entered the University of Vienna, where he obtained doctorates in law (1929) and philosophy (1931). In 1930 and 1931 he was a visiting research associate at the British Museum (Natural History).

Recognising the importance of micropalaeontology and especially fossil foraminifera in petroleum exploration and development, in 1932 Glaessner moved to Moscow to work for the State Petroleum Research Institute of the Soviet Union. In 1934 he transferred to the Institute of Mineral Fuels, to establish its micropalaeontological laboratory. His research focused on fossil-bearing strata in the Bol’shoy Kavkas (Caucasus) mountains. On 29 June 1936 at a registry office in Moscow, he married Christina Tupikina. Having declined to take out Soviet citizenship, he was obliged to leave the country by the end of 1937. He returned to Vienna but, part-Jewish, soon left for London because of the anschluss (1938). Employed by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., he was sent to Port Moresby, Papua, to establish a micropalaeontological laboratory for the Australasian Petroleum Co. Pty Ltd.

Evacuated from Papua in 1942, Glaessner worked in Melbourne. In the next three years he prepared a geological map of Papua and New Guinea for the Australian Military Forces and was a consultant to the Iraq Petroleum Co. Ltd. In 1945 he was naturalised. That year he published Principles of Micropalaeontology, which was to become a standard textbook for thirty-three years. In 1948 he gained a D.Sc. from the University of Melbourne. Back in Port Moresby after the war, he resumed the research that was to culminate in a series of reviews on the stratigraphy and tectonics of Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and the South Pacific.

At the invitation of Sir Douglas Mawson, in 1950 Glaessner joined the department of geology at the University of Adelaide as senior lecturer. He was promoted to reader (1953) and professor (1964). His academic career focused first on micropalaeontology and associated stratigraphy, and included consulting work on oil- and gas-drilling projects on Australia’s continental margins and in Timor, Papua and New Guinea, and New Caledonia. An outstanding lecturer, he provided an intellectually challenging overview ranging across stratigraphy, ancient climates, tectonics and palaeogeography, and attracted several highly talented postgraduate students. Continuing his work on fossil crabs, he established an international reputation in the field with his contribution to Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology (1969), edited by R. C. Moore and published under the auspices of the Geological Society of America.

By the mid-1950s Glaessner had begun investigating the taxonomy, palaeobiology and stratigraphy of the well-preserved early fauna remains at Ediacara in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, research that resulted in The Dawn of Animal Life (1984). Author of more than 150 papers and four books or treatises, and involved in editing several others, he was highly regarded as the foundation editor (1953-58) of the Journal of the Geological Society of Australia. Retiring in 1971, he was appointed emeritus professor. He was an honorary research fellow at the University of Adelaide until 1989.

The Royal Society of New South Wales’s (William Branwhite) Clarke memorial lecturer (1953) and Walter Burfitt prizeman (1962), Glaessner was elected (1957) a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and was chairman (1962-77) of its national committee of geological sciences. He received the Sir Joseph Verco medal from the Royal Society of South Australia (1970) and the Lyell medal from the Geological Society of London (1974), and became a fellow of the German Academy of Scientists Leopoldina (1971) and an honorary member of the Geological Society of Australia (1976). The United States of America’s National Academy of Sciences awarded him its Charles Doolittle Walcott medal in 1982. In 1985 he was appointed AM.

Glaessner’s relationships with his colleagues were mainly friendly but not close: Professor Brian McGowran described him as a `somewhat shy man’ who, although kindly, could be abrupt. Former students remember him with affection. Survived by his wife and their daughter, he died on 22 November 1989 in Adelaide and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. B. Jones and B. McGowran (eds), Stratigraphic Problems of the Later Precambrian and Early Cambrian (1972)
  • B. P. Radhakrishna (ed), The World of Martin F. Glaessner (1991)
  • Australian Geologist, no 75, June 1990, p 39
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 10, no 1, 1994, p 61
  • series A435, item 1944/4/6138 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Bernard O'Neil, 'Glaessner, Martin Fritz (1906–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/glaessner-martin-fritz-12544/text22579, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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