* 02.12.1889, Berlin–Germany | ✞ 26.01.1974, Krefeld–Germany
IPNI abbreviation. — R.Potonié
Palynological Groups. — Spores and Pollen
Stratigraphic Focus. — Paleozoic–Quaternary; especially Carboniferous and Tertiary coals
Geographical Focus. — Germany (Geological Survey Work)
- Robert Henri Hermann Ernst Potonié was born the eldest son of the French-German paleobotanist Henri Potonié (1857-1913). His father was curator for paleobotany at the Prussian Geological Survey and Professor for geology and botany at the university in Berlin since 1900. Living just on the other side of the street of his father‘s workplace and joining him on field trips to the German moors, Potonié junior quickly developed a close bond with botany, coal geology, and nature in general. Aged 20 he started studying geology, botany, and chemistry in Berlin in 1909; his father being amongst his professors.
- His doctoral dissertation (‘On the microchemical proof of fossil cutinized cell walls and fossil cellulose and its significance for the geological study of coals’, supervised by professor von Branca) was interrupted by WWI, serving 1914-1918. He finally graduated in March 1920 under professor Pompeckj; he had already published 18 papers at the time.
- After his habilitation in 1922, R.Potonié became a lecturer and in 1926 full professor in geology at the Technical University in Berlin. Most of his early studies focused on the synthesis of chemistry, botany, and geology to study German brown coals.
- It was not until 1931 (with 6 publications in the year on the topic) that R. Potonié finally ventured into palynology, by describing the palynological content of Tertiary and Paleozoic coals from Germany.
- Later his work was yet again interrupted by war. R. Potonié was drafted in 1940 and was released from Russian war captivity in 1948. Even in captivity, he gave presentations on natural history in layman’s terms for his fellow prisoners and it is said that he even wrote a manuscript during this time.
- After his release, he becomes department head for micropaleontology, palynology, coal petrography, and paleobotany in Krefeld at the Geological Survey of North Rhine-Westphalia. Two years later he additionally accepted a post as a professor at the University of Bonn.
- At the geological survey, R.Potonié met Gerhard O.W. Kremp, a young research assistant at the time. An important encounter for the course of palynology (see below).
- R.Potonié’s labs in Krefeld and Bonn were sought by many students (e.g. Bhardwaj, Thiergart, Manum, Venitz, Wichert) and colleagues and became a center of palynological exchange in the 1950s and 60s.
- Although officially retiring from his survey post in 1955, he retired from his honorary professorship only in 1966 (aged 77). Over the course of his career, R.Potonié produced 226 publications and was honored with several medals, amongst them the Distinguished Service Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.
- In his private life, he led a very amicable marriage with Olga Potonié, who was a constant and active supporter of his scientific endeavors. They shared a special passion for butterflies, which they collected travelling the world together.
- All his life, R.Potonié was a very engaged member of many lay and professional societies ranging from geology, botany, palynology, and nature conservation. He served on the boards and as president for many of these.
Most significant contribution to palynology.—
- A particular interest of R. Potonié was nomenclature, not only for coal petrography but also and especially for palynotaxonomy.
- He was one of the first to use organ genera for palynomorphs (instead of the natural species concept) and although this approach was initially strongly opposed, it was adopted by most workers over the years and is in practice today.
- To categorize the resulting flood of new genera and species, his monumental retirement project was to revise and catalog all so far described pollen and spore taxa. The product was a five-volume series of ‘The synopsis of the genera of the Sporae dispersae’. Especially in collaboration with Gerhard W. O. Kremp Their newly invented turmae system to organize palynology and his many contributions to the Code made a lasting impact on the taxonomy and nomenclature of palynology.
Most important publications. –
(1) Potonié, R. (1956-1970). Synopsis der Gattungen der Sporae dispersae I.- V. Beihefte Zum Geologischen Jahrbuch, 23, 1–103.
(2) Potonié, R., & Venitz, H. (1934). Zur Mikrobotanik des miozänen Humodils der niederrheinischen Bucht. Arbeiten Aus Dem Institut Für Paläobotanik Und Petrographie Der Brennsteine, 5, 1–54.
(3) Potonié, R. (1931). Zur Mikroskopie der Braunkohlen. Tertiäre Sporen- und Blütenstaubformen. Braunkohle, 16, 554–556.
Will be remembered as… . — ‘The great son of the great father.’ Despite the big shoes to fill of his father, he stepped out of his father’s shadow and paved his own road promoting paleobotany in Germany. He will be remembered as one of the founding fathers of paleopalynology in Germany describing hundreds of new taxa still in use today and revolutionizing how palynotaxonomy and nomenclature were organized.
Further reading.— This summary is mostly based on the biography by
- Grebe (1976) In Memoriam Robert Potonié (1889-1974). Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 17, 217-220
- Stach (1975) Robert Potonié. Fortschritte in Der Geologie von Rheinland und Westfalen, 25, 1–6. [in German]
and more detailed biographies and exhaustive publication record can be found therein.
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