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Wilhelm Klein

Category: OMEG Management and Staff Date of Birth: 1889 Date of Death: 1939

Wilhelm Klein (1889-1939) assembled the first systematic collection of minerals from the Tsumeb Mine, in Namibia, where he worked as a mine captain and manager, between 1916 and 1939. His Tsumeb specimens were collected from the uppermost 400 metres of the deposit – i.e. between surface and 14 Level in the underground workings. As such they provide an invaluable contemporary record of Tsumeb’s “first oxidation zone”. Importantly, Klein recorded meticulously the level of the mine from which each piece was recovered so that today, an analysis of his collection greatly facilitates our understanding of the distribution of some of the more common mineral species in the upper levels of the mine.  

Relatively little seems to have been written about Wilhelm Klein; unsurprising, perhaps, because apart from his willingness to relocate from Germany to Africa in order to pursue a career and a keen interest in mineralogy, he appears to have been unremarkable. He was born in 1889, and he left his family home in Waldbröl (east of Cologne, in Germany), arriving in Namibia in 1916.  In addition to assembling and documenting a fine mineral collection, he is credited with taking the first photographs of Tsumeb specimens (see Gebhard, 1999).  He is believed to have influenced other collectors of his time, notably mine manager F.W. Kegel, who also recorded level numbers for his specimens.

On August 25, 1938 Klein gave a presentation on the minerals of Tsumeb at the Eckleben Hotel in Tsumeb.  There is no record of who, or how many, attended this event, but it was deemed of sufficient interest to be written up in the Windhoek newspaper the following month (Cusanus, 1938), and this same account was later re-published in Germany (Ramdohr, 1939).

On the outbreak of WWII, and with Namibia under South African control, most male German citizens in Namibia were moved to interment camps.  Sadly, within a few weeks of his interment, Klein contracted appendicitis and refused to allow “enemy” doctors to treat him; he died, in interment, in 1939 (Georg Gebhard, personal communication, 2015); he was just fifty years old.  His widow and seven children returned to Germany with his collection and, after the war, the collection was put up for sale.  A small number of pieces were retained by the family, but the majority (some 1,040 specimens) was purchased by Professor Clifford Frondel on behalf of Harvard University, in 1953.   

Of the pieces retained by the family, some were sold to a German collector and industrialist by the name of Wüster and today, these are part of the collection of the University of Bonn, housed in the famous Poppelsdorf Palace.

In 1997 a new mineral from Tsumeb, wilhelmkleinite, was named in honour of Wilhelm Klein (Schlüter et al., 1997).

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