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Biographical Memoirs of Deceased Fellows

Originally prepared for publication as part of Bright Sparcs by the Australian Science Archives Project.

Armin Alexander Öpik 1898-1983

By M.F. Glaessner, J.H. Shergold and C. Teichert

Armin Alexander Öpik was born on 24 June 1898 at Lontova near Kunda in Estonia and died on 15 January 1983 in Canberra. Between these years lies a period of history marked by world wars, revolutions and movements of people, voluntary or involuntary, across the face of the Earth. This period saw the growth and rise to world renown of a scientist who was also a philosopher, linguist, poet, chess player, and above all, a true friend and mentor to many of his colleagues in the scientific community. He was a quiet man, devoted to his family and above all to his work. His contributions to the Earth sciences and to the early history of life at first were centred on his homeland and later enlightened us on the distant past of previously little known regions of Australia. They have assured him of a lasting place in the history of science. He had the rare gift of not only making and recording detailed observations but also explaining their wider implications across the narrow boundaries of specific disciplines.

Historical background (C.T.)

In order to appreciate and evaluate Öpik's eminence on the contemporary scientific scene, it is useful to know something of the cultural and historical background of his people. The Estonians are a small ethnic group, closely related to the Finns, that settled in the area south of the Gulf of Finland more than a thousand years ago. Their language belongs to the Finno-Ugric group, unrelated to the Indo-European languages spoken in most of the rest of Europe. Throughout most of historical time the land of the Estonians was occupied and governed first by Germans and Danes, then by Swedes, and finally (since 1721) by Russians, but their identity was never lost. In the 1920s there were a little over a million Estonians and the former German and Russian cultural domination was on the wane. In this environment Öpik easily attained fluency in Estonian, Russian and German, the last being his preferred medium in scientific publications.

Estonia, a country of some 45,000 km², gained her independence in 1920, after the First World War and local fighting against Gerrnan and Soviet Russian forces. Independence lasted little more than two decades, but it was during this time that Öpik's talents were allowed to unfold. Russian troops invaded Estonia in June 1940 and the country became a member republic of the Soviet Union in August of that year. In response to these developments, Öpik increasingly used the Estonian language for publication and in 1940 he published in no other language. In July 1941 Estonia was conquered by the German army, which in turn was expelled by the Russians in July 1944. During the brief interval between the annexation of Estonia by the Russians and its occupation by the Germans, Öpik was advised by his scientific friends to leave his country. When the Russian armies again advanced on Estonia in 1944, Öpik decided to uproot himself and his family and left the country with the retreating German armies. After the end of the war he lived in distressing conditions in displaced persons' camps in Germany until in 1947-48 his emigration to Australia became possible, with the gladly accepted assistance of his friends and of the governmental authorities.

Family reminiscences

Much modern biographical work shows a trend toward psychological and psychoanalytical interpretation in hindsight. Without necessarily approving or attempting to follow this trend, we find it useful to give the reader selective access to material kindly provided by A.A. Öpik's daughter Nora Romot (Sydney). It may illuminate Öpik's personal development better than a bare recital of the course of events in his lif e and of the results of his published scientific work. Nora Romot's own words are given in quotation below.

Armin Öpik was the son of the harbourmaster of Kunda on the Baltic Sea. His parents had six sons and one daughter; two sons died young and the other children grew up to become prominent members of their professions. Ernst Julius Öpik, born on 23 October 1893, became director of Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland after 1948. From 1956 until his retirement he was also professor of astrophysics at the University of Maryland.

Ernst also translated, published and set to music some of his younger brother's poems. His older sister Anna later became a philologist. She was fluent in 14 languages, including Sanskrit. Their father, Karl Heinrich Öpik,

was orphaned at an early age and was brought up at an orphanage and on a cadet-ship of the Russian Imperial Navy. Because of his strict upbringing, Karl Heinrich tried to apply the same regimen at home and would have made his children's lives utter misery if my grandmother's influence had not been stronger. She was soft hearted, and taught her children languages, music, art, etc.

Armin Öpik suffered from a slight speech impediment that delayed his proper speaking ability until his third or fourth year and for the rest of his life made it difficult for him to pronounce certain consonants. He was mocked by other children, spanked by his father, kept out of school until the second year of high school, and taught by his mother, brothers and sister. Despite personal and economic difficulties, Armin became at school an outstanding pupil and athlete; he was inter-schools champion in athletics and wrestling.

The Öpik boys were all great nature lovers and as soon as weather permitted they spent their free time roaming the countryside, discovering and enjoying nature. Paul, the oldest brother, was the first person who introduced Armin to fossils. In later years, when father [Armin] went on his summer collecting trips, my grandfather and uncles would often accompany him, help to ship the collections to Tartu and in winter would come and admire the classified specimens.

It appears that the joint nature study trips brought the family closer together. In difficult economic times, the children helped to pay for each other's education with what they could earn . Armin even gave the gold medal, given to him when he finished school, to his mother so that food could be bought. His father 'who could never understand my father's point of view and his philosophy of life' was very disappointed that his youngest son Armin 'chose geology (nearer to the devil)' instead of becoming a Lutheran pastor. After graduating during the First World War, Armin enrolled in Moscow University but soon enlisted as an artillery cadet. During the war he met and married Barbara Potaschko (who predeceased him in Canberra in 1977). They had one son and three daughters.

'My mother was a great support for him all through his student years,' writes daughter Nora about Barbara and Armin.

He liked to read his papers to her and show her his trilobites. Often did we see them at microscopes, totally engrossed and forgetting that the four of us were sitting impatiently waiting to go home.
I remember him writing his papers mostly with quills. Whenever possible he would obtain large quills, lovingly shape the points with his penknife and settle down to writing. To us children he said that writing in this manner game him lofty ideas-and of course we believed every word he said. [His prewar papers may have been the last scientific manuscripts ever to have been produced with quills.] He was very sure in all his beliefs and there was no power in the world (except mother) that would change his mind. It was very important to him to be top man in palaeontology. For its sake he would walk anywhere so that nothing would be missed en route. The weather did not matter, neither did the state of his health. Carrying his rucksack full of stones was often a torture because of bad arthritis in the spine, but he never gave in. Only in his diaries he mentioned the agonies he suffered for the sake of knowledge.

It is characteristic of the man that for several years at the end of his life he continued his work, keeping the knowledge of his final illness to himself.

Studies and work in Estonia (J.H.S. and C.T.)

Öpik graduated from the Nicolai Gymnasium (semi-classical high school) as laureate with gold medal in 1917. From 1922 to 1926 he studied geology and mineralogy in the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural History, in the Estonian State University at Tartu. After obtaining the degrees of Magister Mineralogiae in 1926 and Doctor Philosophiae Naturalis in 1928, and the title of Privatdozent in 1929, which gave him the right to teach at the University, he was appointed lecturer in geology and mineralogy (l929-30). In 1930 he was elected professor of geology and palaeontology and director of the Geological Institute and Museum, positions he held until the Russian occupation of 1944. Concurrently, Öpik was a member of the Geological Committee, a body set up by law to advise the Estonian Department of Mines on all aspects of economic geology, including the organisation and supervision of field activities in engineering geology and the search for minerals, oil and water. This position he held from 1932 until the German occupation in 1941. During these years, he was also editor of the journal Eesti Loodus and president of the Naturalists' Society of the University of Tartu.

In 1926-28 he undertook study tours in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Sweden and Norway, and in 1932 again in Norway, while in 1937 he took part in a Danish geological expedition in Greenland under the leadership of Dr Lauge Koch. Thus he acquired, on the ground, a sound knowledge of the geology of the older Palaeozoic of northern and central Europe.

Öpik began his field research in Estonia in 1922 and published the first results in several papers in 1925. At this time, 20 years had elapsed since publication by V.V. Lamansky, in 1905, of the last major contribution to Ordovician stratigraphy and palaeontology of Estonia, with the exception of the doctoral thesis on the palaeontology of the Kuckers Stage (now Kukruse Formation) by Öpik's teacher Henrik Bekker in 1921. Unfortunately, Bekker died at a young age in 1925.

Öpik's first publications, in 1925 and 1926, although not very voluminous, were concerned, with a wide range of problems of stratigraphic correlation, facies distribution, palaeogeography and biostratonomy of Cambrian and Early Ordovician deposits in Estonia. His very first paper, on the Cambrian 'Eophyton Sandstone' (now Pirita Formation), exhibits the broad approach to stratigraphic problems that became a hallmark of all of Öpik's later work. Through careful field work and an analysis of the sparse fossil fauna, he reconstructed the palaeogeography and conditions of sedimentation for this formation as well as its exact correlation with beds on the western side of the Baltic Sea. Another small but important publication from this period deals with the famous 'Blue Clay' (now Lontova Formation), an unconsolidated sediment of Early Cambrian Age.

Continuing his studies on Estonia's earliest Palaeozoic formations, Öpik published a study of the 'Obolus Phosphorite' (now Pakerort Formation, earliest Tremadocian) which was his first excursion into the field of economic geology, based on thorough stratigraphic field studies of this remarkable deposit.

Concurrently, Öpik had published a series of minor papers on Lower to Middle Ordovician formations and in 1930 he entered the arena of international palaeontology with the publication of a major monograph on the Brachiopoda Protremata of the Middle Ordovician Kukruse Formation. This most unusual deposit consists of interlayered oil shale and limestone beds that contain an extraordinarily well-preserved, diverse invertebrate fauna; Öpik estimated the no. of species as 300. The study of Ordovician brachiopods continued to hold Öpik's attention for a no. of years and the study of the Kukruse Protremata was followed by monographic works on many taxonomic groups. These contributions were deservedly recognised in many places in Part H (Brachiopoda) of the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology (1965).

In the mid-1930s, Öpik published several authoritative papers on Ordovician ostracodes and his studies of trilobites culminated in 1937 in a major work, Trilobiten aus Estland, that embodied a multitude of original observations on the detailed anatomy of this group.

Over the years, Öpik collected, studied and described many kinds of fossils, but he hardly ever described molluscs (with the exception of what is believed to be the oldest known snail, from the Lontova Formation). He scarcely mentioned their presence in his publications. Although many of the formations studied by him contain enormously rich cephalopod faunas that have attracted world-wide interest, there is hardly a hint of their occurrence in any of Öpik's papers; he once told Teichert that he simply did not feel comfortable with this group, so he left it alone.

Although Öpik was already at that time internationally recognised as a palaeontological authority, his interests ranged, in fact, widely beyond the bounds of palaeontology. During the period from 1925 to 1944, Öpik published 75 scientific papers, in Estonian, German, Czech or English, on all aspects of Estonian regional geology, particularly Cambrian and Ordovician stratigraphy and sedimentology; the glacial history of the Baltic region; economic geology, including studies of phosphate, refractory clays, oil shale and gravel resources; geo-physics, including magnetics; continental drift, and palaeontology. The last was his favourite discipline and for it this period was one of great productivity, yielding a flow of papers and monographs on a wide range of predominantly Early Palaeozoic fossil groups: algae, brachiopods (both articulate and inarticulate), bryozoans, conodonts, crinoids, graptolites, ichnofossils, ostracodes, sponges and particularly trilobites. This was the time that saw Öpik pioneer conodont studies in Europe, explore the functional morphology of trilobites and produce such enduring standard references as 'Brachiopoda Protremata der Estländischen Ordovizischen Kukruse Stufe' (1930), 'Über die Plectellinen' (1932), 'Über Plectamboniten' (1933), 'Über Klitamboniten' (1934) and 'Trilobiten aus Estland' (1937), and, in the economic field, 'Der Estländische Obolenphosphorit' (1929). The palaeontological works are monographs of great stature and quality. A three-vol. textbook on the geology of Estonia was completed in 1941 but, unfortunately, was never published.

Öpik was scientifically entirely self-sufficient; characteristically, the 'Acknowledgments' in his papers usually include expressions of gratitude to people who had loaned him specimens, but never the now customary thanks to persons who had reviewed the manuscripts, offered 'valuable suggestions', 'constructive criticism', and the like. Apparently, there were no such persons.

Öpik was an unusually keen and critical observer who knew how to squeeze the last ounce of information out of the fossils he was studying. His conclusions were always based on testable evidence, most of which he presented in lucid German supported by illustrations of the finest quality. His achievements represented the first significant advance over the efforts of such pioneers in Estonian palaeontology as Mickwitz, Lamansky, and especially Friedrich Schmidt, and there was nobody of the same stature to fill his place when he was forced to leave his country. However, his former assistants Luha and Orviku continued teaching and working in Estonia.

In 1944 Öpik left Estonia and between 1945 and 1948 he lived in displaced persons' camps in Germany, at first at Neustadt, north of Lübeck. Subsequently we find him assisting his brother, E.J. Öpik, the astronomer, who had organised and was professor of a 'Baltic University' at Pinneberg, near Hamburg, from 1945 to 1948. A.A. Öpik taught geology there. He had previously worked with Professor Serge von Bubnoff at the Geotectonic Institute of the German Academy of Science in Berlin, compiling an informative and influential regional geology of the north-eastern part of Europe. This was subsequently published under the title Fennosarmatia in 1952.

Emigration to Australia (C.T.)

At the end of 1946, Teichert wrote to Öpik that Professor Marshall Kay of Columbia University, New York, had informed him of Öpik's precarious situation in a displaced persons' camp in Germany. Teichert asked whether Öpik would be interested in a scientific position in Australia and offered his assistance in obtaining one. Because of difficulties in postal communications in the early post-war years, it took six months before Öpik could reply that he

...would be glad to work in Australia...At the moment we can expect to go to England as unskilled workers and this is the first chance in two years to get out of the displaced persons' camp and out of Germany...However, the years run away and old age comes nearer...If there is any possibility, I would come to Australia and do my best.

Teichert communicated all relevant information to Dr (later Sir) Harold Raggatt, director of the newly-established Bureau of Mineral Resources, who replied on 2 September 1947, agreeing that 'Öpik would make a very valuable addition to the small band of palaeontologists in this country' and stating that the necessary steps toward his immigration were being taken. Such steps through official channels taking their time, Öpik and his family did not arrive in Melbourne until April 1948. After a brief stay in Bonegilla migrant camp near Albury, he commenced work in the Melbourne office of the Bureau of Mineral Resources as Geologist Grade 2 on 21 June 1948. He was transferred to Canberra in March 1949 and there he became a naturalised Australian citizen in September 1955.

Work in Australia (J.H.S.)

Öpik soon mastered the English language and his first major Australian work, a monograph on the Llandoverian (Early Silurian) fauna at Heathcote, Victoria, was commenced in 1948 and completed two years later. On his transfer to Canberra, he began studies on the Ordovician to Devonian stratigraphy of the Australian Capital Territory, simultaneously with other work for the Bureau and largely in his own time. These studies, published between 1954 and 1958, materially aided engineering geology in the rapidly developing Australian Capital Territory and enhanced his involvement with the local geological community.

Australians, however, and the palaeontological community at large, mostly know of Öpik for his work on the Cambrian and Early Ordovician stratigraphy and palaeontology of northern Australia. This work, developed concurrently with his Silurian studies, was initiated only three months after his arrival in Australia with the opportunity to visit the Tennant Creek and Barkly Tableland areas of the Northern Territory, as part of a joint BMR-CSIR land-use survey.

Subsequently, following his duty statement which had him 'carrying out specialist investigations in palaeontology for the Bureau, chiefly in connection with our oil field mapping programme', his work took him to the Jervois area, east of Alice Springs (1949), the Tennant Creek-Mt Isa region (1949), and the Kimberley district of Western Australia (1950), where he was the first to recognise rocks of Ordovician Age. Association with later BMR mapping teams led to visits to the Cambrian terrains of central Australia, particularly the Camooweal, Mt Isa, Urandangi and Duchess areas, during which he was able to amass the palaeontological collections on which he published until the end.

Between 1952 and 1982, Öpik published 27 contributions to Cambrian stratigraphy and palaeontology, including 12 monographs. Some 94 new genera and 294 new species of Cambrian trilobites alone were described, accounting for 54% of all Cambrian trilobites named up to that time from Australia. He achieved this despite the enormous loss through fire, in 1953, of the bulk of his collected material and almost completed manuscripts. With incredibly persistent efforts he retrieved from the ashes as many specimens as could be saved, and then rewrote and eventually published his most important lost papers.

Following on from the work of Westergard and Whitehouse, Öpik's studies on Cambrian agnostid trilobites brought prominence to this hitherto, much-neglected group of fossils. Through diligent observation he pioneered the study of the functional anatomy of Cambrian trilobites, creating in the process a completely new terminological vocabulary and giving an innovative professional style to the systematic description of these organisms.

J.N. Casey, Assistant Director of the Bureau of Mineral Resources, summed up Öpik's work and his standing among his colleagues in the BMR memorial to which we have referred (see acknowledgments). He remarked that Öpik's discovery of the first Ordovician rocks in the Fitzroy Basin of the Kimberleys in 1949 opened up the Canning Basin to petroleum exploration which began in 1950 and is still continuing. His numerous new discoveries in the Cambrian and Ordovician rocks of the Amadeus and Georgina basins enabled new correlations and new environmental interpretations to be carried out in ongoing basin studies throughout Australia.

His stratigraphic studies in the Georgina Basin paved the way for the successful search for and discovery of phosphate rocks in this province in later years. Öpik's mammoth task of documenting the Cambrian collections extended well past his 65th birthday, the compulsory retiring age in the Public Service. Because of his exceptional ability and involvement, this was extended for one year and then another six months. Subsequently, special contract arrangements were made with him to complete the task.

His patent scientific ability and acumen, his profound philosophy which he loved to proclaim in simple and often earthy language, his eager teaching by example in the field and in the laboratory, his sound advice and his simple code of living had a pronounced influence on many young scientists whose good fortune it was to work with him in remote regions of Australia or in Canberra. 'His Australian colleagues, as well as the wide variety of people he met in the bush, will always have strong memories for one of Australia's greatest natural scientists.'

Appreciation of Öpik's Work in Australia and Abroad (M.F.G. and J.H.S.)

In 1962, Öpik was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. On this occasion, Professor Dorothy Hill, F.A.A., F.R.S., wrote:

All his work is characterized by precise and wide-ranging observation. In his work on the Cambrian and Ordovician stratigraphy of Estonia, he was one of the first to apply ecological and facies concepts, and his findings remain valid today.
In his studies of Ordovician brachiopods and ostracodes he was one of the earliest to discuss the impressions left on the shell by soft parts apart from muscles, and to use them in taxonomy. His taxonomy and stratigraphic palaeontology is of the highest quality. His Australian work on Lower Palaeozoic stratigraphic palaeontology of the shelly fauna has been invaluable in his mapping program of the Bureau of Mineral Resources. His field methods are first class, and all aspects of palaeontology, stratigraphy and field geology have received his close attention. His deductions from his observations may be in some cases controversial, but are always logically related to the evidence he has collected.

Up to the 1970s, Öpik's BMR Bulletins were mainly concerned with biostratigraphy. In them, Öpik constructed a firm framework for geological studies of the early Palaeozoic that is still in use today. After that he contributed mainly to the systematic palaeontology of particular groups of trilobites. His papers introduced novel concepts that have stimulated discussion, and this may lead to their revision as a result of research now in progress. Testing of concepts and hypotheses being the essence of advance in scientific knowledge, these developments arising from Öpik's final work tend to increase rather than diminish its appreciation by his successors.

Öpik's extensive labours had won him international recognition early in his career at Tartu. He was Correspondent of the Geological Society of Finland (1926), Corresponding Member of the Palaeontological Society of America (1928) and Honorary Member of the Geological Society of London (1938). He was elected to Honorary Membership of the Geological Society of Australia in 1965 and was Chairman of its Territories Division for two terms. He was Clarke Memorial Lecturer of the Royal Society of New South Wales for 1965 and in 1966 received the Award of Merit of the Professional Officers' Association. He represented the Bureau of Mineral Resources at the 20th International Geological Congress in Mexico in 1956, where he presented three fundamental papers on the Cambrian of Australia and one on Estonia. In 1958 he contributed to a colloquium on the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary in Paris. In 1962 he received from the US National Academy of Science the prestigious Charles Doolittle Walcott Medal for his work on the Cambrian.


The authors thank the Director of the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics (Professor R.W.R. Rutland) for permission to use extensive extracts from a memorial for A.A. Öpik in BMR Journal of Australian Geology and Geophysics, vo1.9 (2), 1985, and to reprint from it the list of publications. They are grateful to A.A. Öpik's daughter, Mrs Nora Romot (Sydney) for granting the Australian Academy of Science permission to use her personal reminiscences of her father in this publication.

M. F. Glaessner, F.A.A. is Emeritus Professor, University of Adelaide.

J. H. Shergold is Principal Research Scientist, Bureau of Mineral Resources, Canberra.

C. Teichert is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Kansas and Adjunct Professor of Geology at the University of Rochester, U.S.A.

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 6, no. 2, Canberra, Australia, 1985.

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 1995
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
© Australian Academy of Science
Prepared by: Victoria Young
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 8 April 1998

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