Alfred Lothar Wegener was born in Berlin, Germany on November 1st, 1880. He was the youngest of the five children of Richard Wegener, clergyman, theologian and classical language teacher. The family was well-off enough to own a vacation home, as well as to afford to educate all their children. Alfred did very well in school and went on to study physics, meteorology and astronomy. He got a doctorate in astronomy in 1905, but had formed a strong interest in the growing disciplines of climatology and meteorology.
Wegener made four expeditions to Greenland in his study of the polar climate, the first in 1906. He built a weather station and made observations using kites and tethered balloons, in addition to the usual instruments. He had his first experience with the killing harshness of Greenland’s climate when the expedition leader and two others died while exploring. He returned to Germany in 1908.
His second expedition to Greenland in 1913 began with a calving glacier that almost wiped it out, and ended with a fortunate and unlikely rescue as their crossing of the interior resulted in their having to eat all of their dogs and ponies before its completion.
His military service in World War One lasted only a few months. He faced fierce fighting, was injured twice and declared unfit for duty. He spent the rest of the war in the meteorological service and published 20 papers by its end. Having published on his ideas about continental drift for the first time in 1912, Wegener followed up with a major work — “The Origin of Continents and Oceans” — in 1915. Interest was small.
After the war he worked as a climatologist and as senior lecturer at the University of Hamburg. In collaboration with Milutin Milankovich, he did pioneering work in a field that would become known as paleoclimatology, where they reconstructed ancient climates. He published the third edition of “The Origin of Continents and Oceans,” provoking discussion of his theory of continental drift, and disparagement by the experts of the day.
By 1924 he attained a position that provided stability for his family, and he was able to concentrate on his studies for the rest of the decade. In 1926 he presented his ideas on continental drift at a symposium in New York, to near-uniform rejection. In 1929 he published the fourth and final edition of “The Origin of Continents and Oceans,” and made his third expedition to Greenland.
Wegener led the 1930 Greenland expedition, his fourth, and his sense of personal responsibility ultimately led to his death. A combination of a late thaw and harsh conditions resulted in the failure of a re-supply mission and the death of Alfred Wegener. His body remains buried where he died.