Biography of Robert Remak
Robert Remak is remembered for discovering and naming - in 1842 - the three germ layers of the early embryo: the ectoderm, the mesoderm and the endoderm. He discovered the nonmedullated nerve fibres in 1838, and in 1844 the nerve cells of the heart, called Remak's ganglia. He was also a pioneer in the use of electrotherapy for the treatment of nervous diseases.
Remak was born in the ghetto of Poznan, which had just been incorporated into Prussia and renamed Posen following Napoleon’s defeat. He was the oldest of the five children of Salomon Meyer Remak, who ran a tobacco shop and lottery office, and Friederike Car. The family is generally thought to be prosperous, although Alexander von Humboldt referred to them as being poor; both descriptions may well have been accurate, since changing political and economic conditions might have altered their circumstances, especially after the return of Poznan from Polish to Prussian sovereignty by the Congress of Vienna. The family were orthodox Jews and maintained a close identification with Polish culture; Remak himself maintained both these allegiances, even after he moved to Prussia.
Remak received his earliest education at home, then attended a private school before entering the lower secondary school in Poznan. Illness forced him to interrupt education for a year, but he returned to complete his secondary studies at the Poznan Polish Gymnasium. Graduating with honours, Remak was entitled to attend any school of higher learning in Germany.
In 1833 he enrolled at the University of Berlin to study medicine. It was a propitious time, since Johannes Peter Müller (1801-1858) had just assumed the professorship of anatomy and physiology there, and Remak was able to profit from his instruction. Remak also studied under Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg (1795-1876) and Johann Lukas Schönlein (1893-1864). Both Müller and Ehrenberg allowed him to use their microscopes and otherwise assisted him in the independent research that he began while he was still an undergraduate.
This research was given direction by Ehrenberg's observations on invertebrate ganglion cells and nerve fibres and by a remark by Müller suggesting the still unproven existence of extremely fine primitive fibrils within the nerve fibre. As early as 1836, when a compound microscope came into his possession, Remak published his first studies on the fine structure of nerve tissue; this communication was reprinted with further reports in his dissertation of 1838, Observationes anatomicae et microscopicae de systematis nervosi structura. Here he recognized that the sympathetic fibres were grey because they were nonmyelated (Remak’s fibres), and that the medullary nerve fibres are not hollow, as had been supposed, but rather surround a translucent substance – a central core called “axis cylinder” by Johannes Evangelista Ritter von Purkinje (1787-1869).
He presumably took the state examination that enabled him to practice medicine shortly thereafter.
No Jewish teachers!
Barred from teaching by Prussian law, which closed that profession to Jews, Remak considered emigrating to Paris, but was dissuaded by Humboldt, who urged him to continue his research. He stayed as an unpaid assistant in Müller's laboratory and supported himself by his medical practice and by giving private lessons in microscopy. One of his first students was Rudolf Albert von Kölliker (1817-1905). In 1839 he discovered ganglion cells in the human heart. This finding seemed to him to explain the relatively autonomous action of the heartbeat, which he knew to be independent of the central nervous system.
In 1843, against the advice of Humboldt, Remak inquired of the ministry of education whether he might be made a Dozent. His request was refused, but in March of that year – with the consent of Müller and the somewhat hesitant assistance of Humboldt – he made a direct petition to the king, and was once again rejected.
That November he entered the laboratory of Schönlein at the Charité Hospital, Berlin, where he continued his research on nerve tissue and also began his investigations into the role of the germ layers in the development of tissues and organs.
Remak had by this time acquired some eminence. He was a member of the Leopoldina (Leopoldinisch-Karolinische Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher) and the Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft of Frankfurt, as well as corresponding member of the Warsaw Medical Society. Nevertheless, when he applied for the post of prosector of the Charité in Berlin in 1846, he was not granted it, and the position went to Rudolf Virchow, his junior by six years. At the end of 1847, however, Humboldt and Schönlein, who was physician in ordinary to the king, succeeded in obtaining a lectureship for Remak – who was disappointed because he had hoped for a full professorship. All the daily newspapers carried the account of Remak’s first lecture, since it was the first time a Jew had taught at the University of Berlin. It may be assumed that his practice profited from the publicity; at any rate, in 1847 he married Feodore Meyer, the daughter of a Berlin Banker and the next year gave up his position in Schönlein’s laboratory. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1859 in belated, though quite inadequate, recognition of his extraordinary body of neurological and embryological research.
In 1843 and 1844 Remak established the presence of extremely fine fibrils in the axis cylinder, while in the earlier year he conducted research on chicken embryos to demonstrate that the innermost portion of the germinal layer (later called endoderm) is the site from which develops the epithelium of not only the gastrointestinal tract, but also that of the respiratory passages, as well as the parenchymas of the liver, pancreas, and thyroid. He also, in 1845, demonstrated the division of those cells in the embryo which develop into primitive muscle bundles. His chief work of pathological anatomy, Diagnostische und pathogenetische Untersuchungen, was published the same year.
In 1848 and 1849 Remak returned to his studies of the germinal layer. In 1850 he published the first of the three parts of his Untersuchungen über die Entwicklung der Wirbelthiere. In it he discussed the probability that the cells in fertilized chicken eggs divide continuously; he further remarked that the structural elements of the ectoderm and the endoderm become increasingly smaller as their numbers increase. He published articles on physiology and histology of the nervous system in general in the Encyclopädisches Wörterbuch der medicinischen Wissenschaften the following year.
It was only in 1851 that Remak recognized that the sense organs are formed from the ectoderm. He reached this conclusion as a result of the fixation of the blastodiscs with acetic acid, sublimate, or chromic acid. He did not achieve true staining, however, except in a series of preparations with tincture of iodine. He reported these findings, with others, in a second part of the Untersuchungen.
By 1852 Remak was able to announce certain conclusions concerning cell divisions. He set aside some of his cautious earlier formulations, and asserted that the cleavage of the frog egg is due to a continuous process of division that always begins with the nucleus.
Remak’s first work on neurology, Über methodische Electrisierung gelähmter Muskeln, was published in 1855. After 1856, when he lost the appointment to the chair of pathology at the University of Berlin to Virchow, Remak devoted himself entirely to his medical practice. With Thomas Addison (1793-1860) and Guillaume Benjamin Amand Duchenne de Boulogne (1806-1875) he made pioneering work in electrotherapy with galvanic currents, and introduced the use of a continuous current in the treatment of nervous diseases, especially on the brain and the spinal marrow. At first the value of such therapy was disputed, but his methods later won recognition as an important contribution to therapy. It was described in his Galvanotherapie des Nerven- und Muskelkrankheiten, which he dedicated to Humboldt and published in 1858. Having treated some 700 patients with galvanic current, Remak believed that it was superior to faradic current for electrotherapy.
Remak was often ill; there are indications that even during his first years as an assistant in Schönlein’s laboratory he had suffered from a chest ailment and had not expected to live much longer. To his sickness was added his frustration at being unable to win suitable academic appointment. His sensitive but aggressive temperament and his refusal to abandon the Jewish faith made life difficult for him. Irritable and often tempestuous in both his personal and his professional relationships, Remak rode roughshod over some traditions held sacred by his contemporaries.
His son was the eminent neurologist Ernst Julius Remak (1849-1911). His grandson was the mathematician Robert Remak, born 1888, who was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942.
We thank Andrzej Grzybowski for information submitted.