The Sad Fate Of The Man Who First Proposed Continental Drift

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, January 4, 2015
“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” —Albert Einstein

In A Nutshell

Alfred Wegener wasn’t a geologist, but he was responsible for developing the idea of continental drift. The idea ruined him, as mainstream science took aim at him for manufacturing or outright ignoring evidence and publishing his ludicrous theories. For years, his served as a cautionary tale to young scientists on why theories too extreme were nothing more than pseudoscience; Wegener tragically died before the academic world realized that he was right.

The Whole Bushel

There are plenty of scientific theories that you might think of as earth-shattering, revolutionary, or controversial, but the idea of continental drift probably isn’t on the short list. It seems pretty obvious today, but when a German meteorologist first proposed it, he paid for it.

Alfred Wegener was the first to notice that the continents fit together like puzzle pieces—pieces that had been dropped and chewed on a bit by a dog, perhaps, but pieces nonetheless. He had more than just a map that looked like it might go together, too. He cited the presence of the same types of plant and animal fossils in South America as there were in Africa, and he also outlined rock formations that seemed to go together, along with the same types of rocks, sediment, and formations.

The whole thing started in December 1910, when a friend of Wegener’s had been given a new atlas. It was then that he noticed the similarities in the coastlines, but he didn’t officially present his theory until two years later in a lecture to the Geological Association in Frankfurt, Germany.

It went completely unnoticed.

Wegener went off to fight in World War I, and while he was in hospital recuperating from his wounds, he wrote a book on his findings. It was the book that quite literally shook the geological world to its foundation.

Part of the problem was that his findings absolutely negated those of a University of Chicago geologist named Thomas Chamberlin. Popular in the scientific community, Chamberlin had been elevated to a place alongside the likes of Galileo by his colleagues. In other words, he could certainly do no wrong. And he thought that the Earth was formed just the way it was right then. Continents were fixed in place, and the idea that they could move was just ludicrous.

Wegener was attacked from all sides. German scientists stood alongside American and British ones to condemn the theory and write it off as the insane ramblings of a man with absolutely no credentials, schooling, or education in the geological field. (He was a university lecturer and experienced Arctic explorer, but that didn’t count for much.)

He was accused of nothing short of making up evidence to support his outlandish claims, and of ignoring the facts and just making up theories fairly irresponsibly. He was a purveyor of “Germanic pseudo-science” according to one critic, and the fiercest (or at least, most outspoken) of those critics was Chamberlin the younger.

Wegener died in 1930. A colleague had made a grievous error, and Wegener was forced to make a trip across Greenland, in November, to make a supply delivery to some of his researchers. His career in meteorology had been more successful than his career in geology, but he died on the way back.

His body was found by later explorers. He never knew that, decades later, science would prove him right.

That wasn’t until the 1960s, though, and for a long time, continental drift wasn’t just forgotten about, it was avoided. Wegener’s work was a cautionary tale, given to newcomers in the field, along with a warning about what happens to scientists that overstep accepted theory. In fact, in World War II, there was another salvo of brutal attacks fired at the idea. But in the end, he was right.

Show Me The Proof

BBC: Continental Drift
Smithsonian: When Continental Drift Was Considered Psuedoscience