- A dictionary of medical eponyms

Johann Gaspar Spurzheim

Born 1776
Died 1832

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German physician, born December 31, 1776, Longuich near Trier, Germany; died November 10, 1832, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Biography of Johann Gaspar Spurzheim

Among writers there seems to be some confusion about Spurzheim's correct name. We thank Dr John van Wyhe for correcting an error on whonamedit.com.

According to Wyhe, the middle name Christoph, used in some articles on Spurzheim, is utterly fictitious and was never used by Spurzheim himself. He was baptised as Caspar Spurzheim, but used the alternate spelling Gaspar in all of his extant letters and also on the title pages of his published works (that is those he personally oversaw during his lifetime). On these his name is given as "Dr G. Spurzheim". Johann was his father's name, and the corect full name is thus Johann Gaspar Spurzheim.

Dr John van Wyhe is Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore, and Affiliated Research Scholar Dept. of History & Philosophy of Science, Cambridge

Johann Christoph Spurzheim's early education was intended to prepare him for a clerical career. He studied Greek and Latin in his native village and in 1791, at the age of fifteen, entered the University of Trèves (now Trier), where he studied Hebrew, divinity, and philosophy. When the French republican army arrived around 1799, he moved to Vienna where he began the study of medicine and was engaged as a private tutor in a fine bourgeois home. Here he met Franz Josef Gall and in 1800 he attended Gall's private lectures. For the next thirteen years the two collaborated on neuroanatomical research. Spurzheim completed his medical studies in Vienna in 1804, and from 1805 he was Gall's secretary and assistant, accompanying Gall on journeys through Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and France.

They arrived in Paris in 1807 and on March 14, 1808, they presented their jointly authored work Recherches sur le système nerveux . . . to the Institut de France. This was published in Paris the following year. They subsequently began working on the publication of the major work Anatomie et physiologie du système nerveux en général . . . Publication of this four-volume work began in 1810, but in 1813, Gall and Spurzheim ended their collaboration after the first 146 pages of volume 2. The remainder was written by Gall alone. It was not until this year that Spurzheim was formally awarded his medical degree.

In 1817 he received licensure in London from the Royal College of Physicians, and in 1821 he became doctor of medicine in Paris with the thesis Du cerveau sous le rapport anatomique. Spurzheim received recognition from many learned societies, including honorary membership of the Royal Irish Academy. He remained a theorist all his life, however, for his scepticism regarding medicine as it was then understood led him to avoid private medical practice.

In 1813 Spurzheim broke with Gall and formalized his views, which he presented in 1815 in his first major publication, The Physiognomical System of Drs. Gall and Spurzheim . . . It was from this major effort that Spurzheim later extracted sections, extended them, and published them as separate works. Spurzheim felt that he was personally responsible for many of the neuroanatomical discoveries traditionally credited to Gall alone – especially those made between 1805 and 1813, en believed that he had been denied the recognition due to him as Gall’s collaborator. Spurzheim contributed to their joint efforts almost from the beginning. Gall had claimed to have discovered twenty-seven innate faculties of the mind, Spurzheim taught that there were no fewer than thirty-five.

In 1832 Spurzheim left England for North America, giving a series of lectures in Boston. This was almost completed when he caught typhus and died. His nephew was the physician Karl Spurzheim (1809-1872) who distinguished himself in his work to improve the conditions in Austrian mental asylums.

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