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Öpik, Armin Aleksander (1898–1983)

by D. F. Branagan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Armin Aleksander Öpik (1898–1983), palaeontologist, was born on 24 June 1898 at Lontova, near Kunda, Estonia, youngest surviving son of Karl Heinrich Öpik, harbourmaster, and his wife Leontine Johanna, née Freiwald. Armin’s father was a strict disciplinarian whose influence was balanced by his mother; she taught the children languages, music and art. His early schooling was disrupted because of a speech impediment but later at the Nicolai Gymnasium he became an outstanding pupil, excelling in athletics and wrestling. During a period of economic hardship he sold his 1917 graduation gold medal to buy food for his family.

Adopting an interest in fossils from his eldest brother, Öpik disappointed his father by choosing to study geology (‘closer to the devil’), instead of becoming a Lutheran pastor. In World War I he enrolled at Moscow University, before enlisting as an artillery cadet. Aged 20, he married Varvara (Barbara) Potashko (d.1977). In the 1920s he studied geology and mineralogy in the faculty of mathematics and natural history at Tartu University, Estonia. His first papers, published in 1925, dealt with the detailed palaeogeography of Estonian rocks of Cambrian and Ordovician age, including the study of the extraordinary unconsolidated ‘Blue Clay’ of early Cambrian age.  He graduated magister mineralogiae (1926) and doctor philosophiae naturalis (1928).

Granted the title of privatdozent in 1929, he was appointed lecturer in geology and mineralogy at Tartu. In 1930 he gained international recognition as a palaeontologist when he produced a major monograph on brachiopods from the unusual, extremely fossiliferous, oil shale and limestone beds of middle Ordovician age in Estonia. That year he became professor of geology and palaeontology, and director of the Tartu Geological Institute and Museum. Between 1932 and 1941 he was president of the university’s naturalists’ society, editor of the journal Eesti Loodus and a member of the Estonian geological committee that advised the department of mines on economic geology (engineering, minerals, oil and water). He was appointed Estonian laureate of science in 1935. Having gained extensive field experience in the geology of the older Palaeozoic rocks of northern and central Europe, he joined the 1937 Danish expedition to Greenland, led by Lauge Koch. By 1944 he had written seventy-five scientific papers on palaeontology and fossil life forms, although he virtually ignored molluscs and cephalopods. Fluent in Russian, he wrote in Estonian, German, Czech, French and English.

Following the Soviet army advance into Estonia in 1944, Öpik and his family left the country. Living in displaced persons’ camps in northern Germany, he assisted his elder brother, the astronomer Ernst Julius Öpik, and taught geology at the self-styled ‘Baltic University’ at Pinneberg, near Hamburg; he also worked with the geologist Serge von Bubnoff at the Geotectonic Institute of the German Academy of Sciences, Berlin.

In 1948 Öpik arrived in Melbourne, helped by the efforts of Curt Teichert, senior lecturer in geology at the University of Melbourne, who put him in touch with (Sir) Harold Raggatt, director of the Commonwealth Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics. Employed by the BMR, Öpik began his first major Australian work, on the palaeontology of the Silurian rocks of the Heathcote region, Victoria. It was published as Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Victoria, vol. 19 (1953).

Moving to Canberra with the BMR in 1949, Öpik studied the local stratigraphy, often in his own time. He published memoirs and maps that were not only of theoretical interest but also were useful to engineers in the rapidly developing Australian Capital Territory. However, he sparked controversy when he suggested that the region’s relatively unconsolidated gravel deposits dated from the late Palaeozoic period, rather than from the Tertiary, and that Mount Ainslie was the remnant of a volcanic centre. He pioneered the study of the functional anatomy of Cambrian fossils. His recognition of Ordovician rocks in north-western Australia in 1949 indicated the possibility of oil occurrences in the Canning Basin and his work in the Georgina Basin led to the discovery of phosphate deposits. From 1952 to 1982 he published twenty-seven monographs and papers on his palaeontological studies of Cambrian and early Ordovician rocks of northern Australia. He described ninety-four new genera and 294 new species of Cambrian trilobites, overcoming damage to his fossil collection and the loss of an almost completed manuscript in a fire in 1953. Naturalised in 1955, he retired in 1964.

In the field Öpik had an uncanny ability to spot rock layers that contained fossils, often to the amazement of sceptical companions. Although in Australia he was not, strictly speaking, an academic, he strongly influenced several generations of younger geologists. He left a firm impression on both his Estonian and Australian colleagues, and on the many people whom he met in the bush. Remembered as a philosopher and a chess player, he also wrote poetry; in 1919 he had produced his first poems and, near the end of his life, a set in Estonian, based on Australian Aboriginal myths, which were published in the Canadian journal Mana.

Öpik was a correspondent of the Geological Society of Finland (1926), corresponding member of the American Palaeontological Society (1928), and honorary member of the Geological Society of London (1938) and the Geological Society of Australia (1965). He was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1962. The Royal Society of New South Wales’s (W. B.) Clarke memorial lecturer (1965), he won the prestigious Charles Doolittle Walcott medal of the United States of America’s National Academy of Sciences (1962) and the award of merit of the Commonwealth Public Service Professional Officers’ Association (1966). Survived by his two daughters and a son, he died on 15 January 1983 in Canberra and was cremated with Lutheran rites. Two sons and a daughter had predeceased him.

Select Bibliography

  • L. O’Sullivan et al (eds), A Brief Guide to the Records of Armin Aleksander Öpik (1992)
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 6, no 2, 1985, p 267
  • BMR Journal of Australian Geology & Geophysics, vol 9, 1985, p 69
  • Canberra Times, 18 Apr 1962, p 2, 19 Jan 1983, p 7
  • family information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. F. Branagan, 'Öpik, Armin Aleksander (1898–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/opik-armin-aleksander-15423/text26635, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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