1902 Encyclopedia > Theodor Schwann

Theodor Schwann
German chemist

THEODOR SCHWANN, (1810-1882), author of the cell theory in physiology, was born at Neuss in Rhenish Prussia on 7th December 1810. His father was a man of great mechanical talents; at first a goldsmith, he afterwards founded an important printing establishment. Schwann inherited his father's mechanical tastes, and the leisure of his boyhood was largely spent in constructing little machines of all kinds. He studied at the Jesuits' college in Cologne and afterwards at Bonn, where he met Johannes Muller, in whose physiological experiments he soon came to assist. He next went to Wiirzburg to continue his medical studies, and thence to Berlin to graduate in 1834. Here he again met Muller, who had been meanwhile trans-lated to Berlin, and who finally persuaded him to enter on a scientific career and appointed him assistant at the anatomical museum. Schwann in 1838 was called to the chair of anatomy at the Roman Catholic university of Louvain, where he remained nine years. He then went as professor to Liege, where, in spite of brilliant offers from many German universities, he led a very quiet un-eventful life, broken only by the international commemora-tion of the fortieth anniversary both of his professoriate and the publication of his magnum opus, till his death on 11th January 1882. He was of a peculiarly gentle and amiable character and remained a devout Catholic through-out his life.

It was during the four years spent under the influence of Muller at Berlin that all Schwann's really valuable work was done. Miiller was at this time preparing his great book on physiology, and Schwann assisted him in the experimental work required. His attention being thus directed to the nervous and muscular tissues, besides making such histological discoveries as that of the envelope of the nerve-fibres which now bears his name, he initiated those researches in muscular contractility since so elaborately worked out by Du Bois Beymond and others. He was thus the first of Midler's pupils who broke with the traditional vitalism and worked towards a physico-chemical explanation of life. Muller also directed his attention to the process of digestion, which Schwann showed to depend essentially on the presence of a ferment called by him pepsin, thus not only practically bringing the subject up to its modern state but preparing for the subsequent advances in medical treatment made by Roberts. Schwann also examined the question of spontaneous generation, which he aided greatly to disprove, and in the course of his experiments discovered the organic nature of yeast. His theory of fermentation was bitterly attacked and ridiculed by Liebig, but has been, after the lapse of a quarter of a century, triumphantly confirmed. In fact the wdiole germ theory of Pasteur, as well as the antiseptic application of Lister, is thus traceable to the influence of Schwann. Once when dining with Schleiden, in 1837, the conversation turned on the nuclei of vege-table cells. Schwann remembered having seen similar structures in the cells of the notochord (as had been shown by Muller) and instantly seized the importance of connecting the two phenomena. The resemblance was confirmed without delay by both observers, and the results soon appeared in the famous Microscopic Investiga-tions on the Accordance in the Structure and Growth of Plants and Animals (Berlin, 1839 ; trans. Sydenham Society, 1847), and the cell theory (see MORPHOLOGY) was thus definitely constituted. In the course of his verifications of the cell theory, in which he traversed the whole field of histology, he proved the cellular origin and de-velopment of the most highly differentiated tissues, nails, feathers, enamels, &c. Although mistaken in his view of the origin of new cells, his generalization at once became the foundation of all modern histology, and in the hands of Virehow (whose cellular pathology is an inevitable deduction from Schwann) has afforded the means of placing modern pathology on a truly scientific basis.

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