Friedrich M. Stapff qualified as a geologist and mining engineer at the famous mining academy at Freiberg, Germany, during 1854-1856. Continuing his studies at Jena he was awarded the degree Doctor of Philosophy (Dr Phil) in 1861. During 1857-1869 he worked mainly in Sweden, but also travelled extensively in Europe. During this period he published a number of papers in economic geology, as well as a monograph in Swedish on mine surveying (1866) and a book in German on rock boring machinery (1869). The next few years took him to the United States and Mexico where he was concerned mainly with silver mining. He returned to Germany in 1872. From 1873 to 1882 he was employed in the construction of the St Gotthardt tunnel - a 15 km long railway tunnel through the Swiss Alps. He published a number of papers on the geology, ventillation, rock temperatures and other aspects of the tunnel (1878-1894), as well as a detailed account of its geological profile (1880). In 1883 he settled in Berlin.
In 1885 Stapff was appointed as consultant to the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft für Südwestafrika (a commercial enterprise) and sent to German South West Africa (now Namibia) to investigate the economic potential of the lower Kuiseb area. From December 1885 to April 1886 he studied the geology of the region, but also gave attention to its climate, vegetation and agricultural potential.
Stapff (and G. Gürich*) initiated work on the extensive complex of metamorphic and intrusive rocks in Hereroland and Damaraland which was later included as part of the Damara Sequence. His geological investigations resulted in papers (in German) on the lower Kuiseb valley and its beach area (Verhandlungen der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, 1887), an excellent description of the region with a geological map (Petermanns Mitteilungen, 1887), gold occurrences in the region (Deutsche Kolonialzeitung, 1888), its mineral deposits (Verhandlungen des Vereins deutscher Naturforscher und Ärtze, 1888), and soil temperature observations in the hinterland of Walfish Bay (Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, 1888). A later paper by him dealt with the optical properties of the Namibian mineral beryl (a beryllium-aluminium silicate used as a gemstone, 1893).
Stapff made a thorough analysis of the available meteorological observations for Walfish Bay and published notes on its climate in the Deutsche Kolonialzeitung (1887). He ascribed the lack of vegetation on the Namib plain partly to the salinity of the soil, assuming that the coastal plain had been raised from the sea in the geologically recent past. With regard to the agricultural potential of the Kuiseb valley, he overestimated the mean annual discharge of the river and suggested a method of riverine crop cultivation that was already being practised in North Africa. This involved excavating parts of the river bottom so that plant roots would be able to reach ground water, with dykes around the excavated plots. The method would require less water than irrigation and would prevent salination of the soil. He also recommended that Sandwich Harbour be developed as a German port, as an alternative to Walfish Bay, which was then under British control. During his visit he collected plants which were sent to Berlin. Two plant species, Zygophyllum stapffii and Ornithogalum stapffii were named after him by the botanist Hans Schinz*.
In 1889 Stapf entered the lengthy controversy relating to the origin (whether volcanic or glacial) of the conglomerates in South Africa that later came to be known as Dwyka tillite. In a paper in the Naturwissenschaftliche Wochenscrift (1889) he (wrongly) rejected a glacial explanation for all the southern conglomerates and only to a limited extent accepted glacial action for the northern outcrops.
In October 1893 he was appointed lecturer in practical geology at the Technische Hochschule (Technical University) in Berlin. Two years later he was asked by the Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Gesellschaft to investigate the presence of gold in the Usambara region of German East Africa (the south-eastern shore of Lake Victoria, now in Tanzania). He left in August 1895 but soon after his arrival in Africa died of malaria.