Johann Christian Reil
Biography of Johann Christian Reil
Johann Christian Reil was the son of a Lutheran pastor in the small East Friesland town of Rhaude. He received his first education in nearby Norden, a small town on the sea. In 1779 he began his medical studies at the University of Göttingen. In 1780 He transferred to the University of Halle, graduating two years later with a dissertation on biliary diseases, Tractatus de polycholia. Among his teachers were the anatomist and surgeon Phillip Friedrich Theodor Meckel (1756-1803) and the clinician Johann Friedrich Gottlieb Goldhagen (1742-1788).
Following graduation Reil spent some years of practicing in his native city of Rhaude in Ostfriesland. In 1887 he returned to Halle where he was habilitated for Privatdozent and became professor extraordinary. When his former teacher, Goldhagen, died in 1788, Reil was appointed clinical professor and director of the clinical institute. He also became Halle’s municipal physician (Stadtphysikus) in 1789, a post which he retained throughout the difficult years of the Napoleonic occupation.
This was in the period of the Napoleonic wars, and Reil witnessed the economic collapse of Halle in 1806 and the closing of its university. He spent much time caring for the wounded soldiers who crowded into the city’s lazaretto. By 1807 he was involved in reorganizing Halle’s institution of higher learning, which reopened in 1808 with Reil as dean of the medical school. He also promoted Halle as a centre for balneotherapy.
Reil’s reputation grew so enormously, attracting students such numbers of students, that in 1810 Wilhelm von Humboldt invited him to participate in the organization of the medical school at the newly founded University of Berlin. With the support of the clinician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836), some of Reil’s proposals were adopted and he himself was placed in charge of the university’s medical clinic.
During his travels in the years 1802-1805 the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Reil in Halle for scientific discussions, particularly on psychiatry. Documents recently found show that Goethe also consulted Reil as a physician.
A time of war
The year 1813 saw the turn of the tide on the battlefields of Europe. When Napoleon came back from the Russian campaign in the winter of 1912 little was left of his Grand armé, but it was still unbeaten in battle. With the renewal of hostilities in April 1913, Reil volunteered for military duty and attempted to organise a private hospital in Berlin for the wounded. By September of the same year, sanitary conditions had deteriorated alarmingly because of a tremendous increase in the number of casualties in Blücher’s army; and an epidemic of typhus among the poorly treated soldiers compounded the difficulties. Reil’s efforts to halt the disease was greatly hindered by the battle of Leipzig – later known as the Battle of the Nations, on October 13-16, 1913. The French lost 38,000 men killed and wounded, while Allied losses totalled 55,000 men. This battle, one of the most severe of the Napoleonic Wars (1800-15), and Napoleon's first loss, marked the end of the French Empire east of the Rhine. Reil was untiring in his efforts to evacuate these victims, organizing makeshift hospitals for them in Leipzig, Halle, and the surrounding villages. In the process he contracted typhus and died in his sister’s house in Halle.
In 1795 Reil founded the first journal dealing with physiology in Germany, Archiv für die Physiologie, which was to present works in physics, chemistry, histology, biology, and comparative anatomy. He published this journal, a total of 12 volumes, from 1796 to 1815. The content of these twelve volumes are listed below. One of the initial articles was a short monograph by Reil concerning the vital force of the organism, Über die Lebenskraft. This subject was attracting great attention in contemporary medical circles, since the elucidation of the Lebenskraft was expected to provide the foundations for medical theory and practices.
Reil was a leading representative of romantic medicine, a "school" largely based on the ideas of natural philosophy presented by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854). In his final speech at the University of Halle, delivered on September 1810, Reil revealed the transformation of his thought. He declared that his previous fondness for various explanations had finally given way to a “living perception of intuition.” Instead of dealing with mechanical principles, medicine was now to be guided by certain fundamental ideas, and observation had therefore reached a higher level from which all objects could be seen in their natural relationships.
Reil was a stimulating teacher who attempted to close the gap between physicians and surgeons in Germany by proposing better educational standards for the latter. He was keenly interested in training paramedical personnel who could fill the unmet medical needs in the rural population. He should also be remembered for his contributions to the understanding and care of the mentally ill.
In 1910 Reil became a member of Die Gesetzlose Gesellschaft zu Berlin ("The Lawless Society of Berlin"). This Society, which had been established in Berlin on November 4, 1809, was a sort of patriotic brotherhood combining the struggle for fatherland and freedom with a lively social life.
"Our time has been ruined by the ubiquity of its own conceit."
Valedictory address, 1810. Translated by Max Samter.