Alfred Wegener was born on November 1, 1880, in Germany’s capital city, Berlin. Alfred was an intelligent boy. He received a conventional education, attending grammar school in Berlin. His academic ability at school marked him clearly for a university education.
His father, Richard Wegener, was a classical languages teacher and pastor. His mother, Anna Wegener, was a housewife. The Wegener family of two adults and five children – Alfred was the youngest – was quite well-off financially.
In 1902 he began working towards a Ph.D. degree in astronomy, spending a year at Berlin’s famous Urania Observatory, whose purpose was, and still is, to bring astronomy to a wider public.
While his father was a theologian and classics teacher, Alfred and his older brother Kurt (1878–1964) were more inclined towards the natural sciences. Wegener studied mathematics and astronomy in Berlin and Heidelberg, but soon was drawn to geophysics and meteorology.
Alfred, like his brother, enjoyed hiking, mountain climbing, and sailing. After the completion of his PhD in astronomy he went together with his brother Kurt to the aeronautical observatory, the “Königlich Preußisches Aeronautische Observatorium Lindenberg” close to Berlin.
Together they participated in ballooning and conducted meteorological observations in the new discipline of aerology. Together they set a world record for the longest time spent aloft in a balloon, remaining in the air for 52 hours from 5 to 7 April 1906.
The experiences with kites and balloons as a meteorologist in the new field of aerology at Lindenberg gave him the unexpected opportunity to participate in the Danish Danmark Expedition to Greenland from 1906–1908.
Wegener’s publications in the field of geophysics are remarkable because they are often based on intuitive insights and careful observations and encompass very different fields—the origins of continents and oceans, paleoclimatology, aerology, meteorology and atmospheric sciences, origins of craters on the moon, aurora and wind phenomena in the polar regions, or the origins of tornados and turbulence phenomena, and similar matters.
Shortly after receiving his Ph.D., Wegener began teaching at the University of Marburg in Germany. During his time there he gained an interest in the ancient history of the Earth’s continents and their placement after noticing in 1910 that the eastern coast of South America and the northwestern coast of Africa looked like they were once connected.
In 1911 Wegener also came across several scientific documents stating that there were identical fossils of plants and animals on each of these continents and he claimed that all of the Earth’s continents were at one time connected into one large supercontinent.
In 1930, Wegener took part in his last expedition to Greenland the set up a winter weather station that would monitor the jet stream in the upper atmosphere over the northern pole. Severe weather delayed the start of that trip and made it extremely difficult for Wegener and 14 other explorers and scientists to reach the weather station location.
Eventually 13 of these men would turn around but Wegener continued and got to the location five weeks after starting the expedition. On the return trip, Wegener became lost and it is believed that he died in November 1930.