Arnold Escher von der Linth (1807–1872)
Professor of geology at the University of Zurich and the Polytechnic School
Arnold Escher von der Linth was born on 8 June 1807 as the youngest child of Hans Konrad Escher von der Linth and Regula von Orelli. A state councillor, geologist, painter and engineer, his father achieved lasting fame when he headed the correction of the river Linth. In the wake of the successful project, Zurich's long-established Escher vom Glas family was given the honorary title "von der Linth". Of the couple's nine children, Arnold was the only son to survive to adulthood. And as the honorary “von der Linth” title could only be passed on to male offspring and Arnold Escher did not go on to have any children, the name ultimately died with him.
In Zurich, Arnold Escher attended the Bürgerschule and, from 1815, the Gelehrtenschule (the forerunner to the grammar school). Already as a young boy, he accompanied his father, who would remain his unrivalled role model throughout his life, on excursions and research trips in the Alps, learning to observe nature and keep diaries. Besides an interest in geology, he probably also inherited his artistic talent from his father. From 1825 to 1827 he studied natural sciences at the Geneva Academy, specialising in geology. This was when he decided to become a geologist. Really, he had been groomed for a business career and was eventually supposed to take over the family silk factory. But Escher did not feel cut out for the business world.
Travel and work at the University and Polytechnic School Zurich
So he continued his studies for two years in Berlin, where he met Alexander von Humboldt, and in Halle. In 1829, following a journey through Germany, Austria and Northern Italy, he returned to Switzerland. After an extended research expedition through Italy, he took up a position as a private lecturer in mineralogy and geology at the University of Zurich, which had been founded the previous year, and simultaneously ran the Mineralogical and Geological Collection. He was repeatedly offered a chair, but kept declining as he did not feel worthy of a professorship. He eventually gave in to the pleas of the educational authorities in 1852, however, and accepted the position. From 1856 he was also a professor of geology at the newly created Polytechnic School.
Arnold Escher's teaching activities did not stop at academic lectures, either. His impact as a teacher was probably even greater in his personal approach to his students while working in the Geological Collection or on his numerous excursions, for instance. Escher only gave lectures in the winter semester, preferring to use the summer months for geological research in the mountains. He did not want to accept any money for his lectures. As this was not possible on legal grounds, however, he spent virtually his entire salary on these excursions, discreetly sponsoring talented yet financially less well-off students so they could attend. Thanks to a donation of CHF 10,000, he also ensured that needy students could carry on joining geological excursions after his death. He also paid for the majority of the acquisitions for the Geological Collection from his own pocket.
Investments for forestry and alpine farming
Besides his teaching and research activities, Arnold Escher also performed practical tasks, penning numerous reports for cantonal and federal authorities and playing an active role on various commissions. He also championed the protection and reforestation of alpine forests, improvements in the timber and Alpine industry, and torrent control. In his will, he left CHF 15,000 for forestry measures to combat subsidence damage in the alpine cantons. During his lifetime, his dedication and charity work was coupled with an almost bizarre reserve and modesty. He even kept his academic honours and titles from his closest friends. In the spring of 1872, Escher was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. His suffering came to an unexpectedly quick end on 12 July of the same year.
Excerpt from "Tagebüchern der geologischen Exkursionen und Reisen" (Diaries of Geological Excursions and Journeys, 1833–1866, Vol. II, p. 292.
ETH-Bibliothek, ETH Zurich University Archives (Hs 04 a:245).
Although one of the "forefathers" of Swiss Alpine geology, Arnold Escher produced very few publications – again due to his modest character fraught with self-doubt. The majority of his research can be found in his notes and diaries, which are illustrated with numerous sketches and colour drawings. As Escher always generously made his hand-drawn pictures available to his students and friends, his scientific achievements also live on in their publications
Information on the life and work of Arnold Escher von der Linth is available in the biographical file in the ETH-Zurich University Archives. The biography written by his friend and colleague Oswald Heer entitled "Arnold Escher von der Linth. Lebensbild eines Naturforschers" (Zurich, 1873, with catalogue of works) and "Erinnerungen an Arnold Escher von der Linth" (Memories of Arnold Escher von der Linth) by his student Albert Heim, published in theVerhandlungen der Schweizerischen Naturforschenden Gesellschaft, 1896, pp. 1–26 are also worth mentioning. Both works can be ordered via ETH Library's Search Portal (external link).
The ETH Zurich University Archives also contain Arnold Escher's personal scientific papers. Both his large scientific correspondence and his drawings and profiles (external link) are available online.