Ferdinand von Richthofen

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Ferdinand von Richthofen
(Ferdinand von Richthofen) - Ernst (...)Milster Ernst btv1b84510245 (cropped).jpg
Born(1833-05-05)5 May 1833
Died6 October 1905(1905-10-06) (aged 72)
Alma materUniversity of Breslau
University of Berlin
AwardsWollaston Medal (1892)
Vega Medal (1903)
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Bonn
University of Leipzig
University of Berlin
Doctoral studentsSven Hedin
Alfred Philippson
Arthur Berson
Wilhelm Sievers
Ferdinand von Richthofen signature.jpg

Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen FRSFor HFRSE BGS (5 May 1833 – 6 October 1905), better known in English as Baron von Richthofen, was a German traveller, geographer, and scientist. He is noted for coining the terms "Seidenstraße" and "Seidenstraßen" = "Silk Road(s)" or "Silk Route(s)" in 1877.[1][2][3] He also standardized the practices of chorography and chorology. He was an uncle of the World War I flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, best known as the "Red Baron".


He was born in Carlsruhe, at that time in Prussian Silesia, and was educated in the Roman Catholic Gymnasium in Breslau.

He studied Medicine at the University of Breslau and at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He traveled or studied in the Alps of Tyrol and the Carpathians in Transylvania. In 1860, he joined the Eulenburg Expedition, a Prussian expedition which visited Ceylon, Japan, Taiwan, Celebes, Java, the Philippines, Siam, Burma between 1860 and 1862. No important work resulted from these travels, for much of Richthofen's records and collections was lost. China was at the time inaccessible owing to the Taiping rebellion, but Richthofen was impressed with the desirability of exploring it.[4] From 1862 to 1868, he worked as a geologist in the United States, discovering goldfields in California. He then followed up his interest in China by several more trips there, and also to Japan, Burma, and Java. In China he located the dried-up lake bed of Lopnur.

He published his geographical, geological, economic, and ethnological findings in three volumes with an atlas, which, however, did not cover the entire field or complete the author's plan. This work appeared at Berlin in 1877-85 under the title of China: Ergebnisse eigner Reisen und darauf gegründeter Studien. In this standard work, the author deals not only with geology but with every subject necessary to a general geographical treatise. Notably he paid close attention to the economic resources of the country he traversed. He also wrote a valuable series of letters to the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, and first drew attention to the importance of the coalfields of Shantung, and of Kiaochow as a port.[4]

He was appointed professor of geology at the University of Bonn beginning in 1875, but being fully occupied with his work in China he did not take up professorial duties until 1879. He became professor of geography at the University of Leipzig in 1883, and professor of geography at the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin in 1886. He occupied the latter position until his death. His lectures attracted numerous students who subsequently became eminent in geographical work, and in order to keep in touch with them he established his weekly geographical “colloquium.” Among his most famous students was Sven Hedin, the Swedish explorer. He served as president of the German Geographical Society for many years and founded the Berlin Hydrographical Institute.[4]

He is noted for coining the terms "Seidenstraße" and "Seidenstraßen" = "Silk Road(s)" or "Silk Route(s)" in 1877.[2][3] He also standardized the practices of chorography and chorology.

He died in 1905 in Berlin.


When William Gill consulted him about a planned trip to China, he remarked:

The mountain range on the southern edge of the Hexi Corridor in western China was named Richthofen Range after him, although the modern name is now Qilian Mountains. The 12940 ft. Mount Richthofen in Rocky Mountain National Park is also named after him.[5]


In German[edit]

  • “Die Kalkalpen von Vorarlberg und Nordtirol” in Jahrbuch der geologischen Reichsanstalt; 1859–1861
  • “Die Metallproduktion Kaliforniens” in Petermanns Mitteilungen; 1865
  • China, Ergebnisse eigner Reisen und darauf gegründeter Studien (China: The results of my travels and the studies based thereon), 1877–1912, 5 vols. and atlas
  • Aufgaben und Methoden der heutigen Geographie (an address delivered at Leipzig, 1883)
  • Führer für Forschungsreisende (A guide for the traveling researcher), Berlin, 1886
  • Triebkräfte und Richtungen der Erdkunde in neunzehnten Jahrhundert (address on his election as rector, Berlin, 1903)

In English[edit]

  • Comstock Lode: Its Character, and the Probable Mode of Its Continuance in Depth (1866)
  • Principles of the Natural System of Volcanic Rocks (1867)
  • Letters to the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce (1869–72)
  • Richthofen, F. (1872). Letter from Baron Richthofen on the Province of Hunan. Shanghai: Re-printed at the "Ching-foong" Printing Office. State Library of New South Wales, TQ047868
  • Richthofen, F. (1872). Letter by Baron von Richthofen on the provinces of Chili, Shansi, Shensi, Sz'-chwan, with notes on Mongolia, Kansu, Yünnan and Kwei-chau. no. 7. Shanghai: Re-printed at the "Ching-foong" Printing Office. State Library of New South Wales, TQ047868
  • Richthofen, F. (1872). Letter by Baron von Richthofen, from Si-ngan-fu, on the rebellion in Kansu and Shensi. No. 6. Shanghai: Printed at the office of the 'North-China Herald'. State Library of New South Wales, TQ047868


Regarding personal names: Freiherr is a former title (translated as Baron). In Germany since 1919, it forms part of family names. The feminine forms are Freifrau and Freiin.


  1. ^ See:
    • Richthofen, Ferdinand von (1877). "Über die zentralasiatischen Seidenstrassen bis zum 2. Jh. n. Chr" [On the Central Asian Silk Roads until the 2nd century A.D.]. Verhandlungen der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin (in German). 4: 96–122.
    • Richthofen, Ferdinand von (1877). China. Ergebnisse eigener Reisen und darauf gegründeter Studien [China. Findings of My Own Travels and Studies Based Thereon] (in German). vol. 1. Berlin, Germany: Dietrich Reimer. pp. 496–507. From p. 496: "Ergänzende Nachrichten über den westlichen Theil einer der früheren Seidenstrassen erhalten wir wiederum durch MARINUS, der hier ganz seinem Berichterstatter, dem Agenten des Macedoniers MAËS (s. oben S. 478), folgt." (On the other hand, we obtain additional information about the western part of one of the earlier Silk Roads via Marinus, who here closely follows his correspondent, the agent of the Macedonian Maës (see p. 478 above).)
  2. ^ a b "Approaches Old and New to the Silk Roads" Vadime Elisseeff in: The Silk Roads: Highways of Culture and Commerce. Paris (1998) UNESCO, Reprint: Berghahn Books (2000), pp. 1-2. ISBN 92-3-103652-1; ISBN 1-57181-221-0; ISBN 1-57181-222-9 (pbk)
  3. ^ a b Waugh, Daniel. (2007). "Richthofen's "Silk Roads": Toward the Archaeology of a Concept." The Silk Road. Volume 5, Number 1, Summer 2007, p. 4.
  4. ^ a b c  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Richthofen, Ferdinand". Encyclopædia Britannica. 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 314.
  5. ^ edited by Randy Jacobs, with Robert M. Ormes. (2000). Guide to the Colorado mountains. Golden, Colo: Colorado Mountain Club Press. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-9671466-0-7.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)


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