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Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach

Born  1792
Died  1847

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German surgeon, born February 1, 1792, Königsberg, Prussia; died November 11, 1847, Berlin?

Biography of Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach

Having lost his father at an early age, Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach went to Rostock, his mother’s native town, and from 1812 studied theology in Rostock and Greifswald. He was, however, soon drafted to the army, participating in the war from 1813 to 1814 as voluntary riding hunter. On dismission he turned to medicine, which he studied in Königsberg from 1816 to 1820. He was specially fascinated by anatomy and surgery. He early concerned himself with attempts on grafting hairs and feathers, and soon performed his first operations, demonstrating a natural born mechanical talent.

Despite his position as a prosector, an unhappy love affair in 1820 made him leave Königsberg for Bonn, where he preferredly joined the surgeon and ophthalmologist Phillip Franz von Walther (1782-1849). It was on Walther’s recommendation, after one and a half year in Bonn, he became connected with an ill Russian lady whom he accompanied to Paris as a physician. During a half year stay in Paris he had the opportunity of learning to know several of the celebrities of the day, among them Guillaume Dupuytren (1777-1835), Baron Alexis de Boyer (1757-1833), Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey (1766-1842), and François Magendie (1783-1855). He also visited Montpellier and the clinics of Jacques Delpech (1777-1832) and Claude François Lallemand (1790-1853) in that town, but in 1822 went to Würzburg to receive his doctorate.

One year later, in 1823, Dieffenbach settled in Berlin and turned his attention to plastic and reconstructive surgery, especially rhinoplastic. At that time Joseph Constantine Carpue (1764-1846) had reported of the techniques of rhinoplasty practised in India for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, a field which had also attracted the attention of Carl Ferdinand von Graefe (1787-1840). The ground was thus well prepared. Paying the price for this expertise were Indian criminals who had had their nose cut off in punishment.

He soon won recognition as a leading plastic surgeon. In the following years he published a large number of writings describing his methods of operation, above all in the field of rebuilding surgery. In 1829 he was made chief physician to the surgical department of the Berlin Charité. Because Johann Nepomuk Rust (1775-1840) in his later days had become rather poorsighted, Dieffenbach performed most of the operations. In 1832 he became professor extraordinary at the university.

At this period he turned his attention to the recently introduced subcutaneous operations like tenotomys and other methods of treating orthopaedic disturbances. He also concerned himself with blood transfusions, with the healing of stuttering and blinking and shortly before his death authored the last of his medical dissertations, Der Aether gegen den Schmerz.

Following the death of Graefe in 1840, Dieffenbach was appointed to the vacated chair at the medical faculty, and thus assumed the directorship of the university surgical clinic. By that time he was recognized as one of Germany's greatest surgeons and among its most prolific medical writers

Dieffenbach was a born genius, brilliant and fast in making up his mind, while still a man of indestructible calm, with a presence of mind and a manual dexterity that made him an operator of the first rank. He also had a magic effect on his clinical listeners, old or young, as his clinical lectures were neither deep nor learned. His genial nature won the heart of his students, as well as his patients. Like a soldier on the battlefield, he died while about to start operating.


  • Nonnulla de regeneratione et transplantatione.
    Thesis for M. D., Würzburg. Herbipoli, typ. Richterianis, 1822.
  • Über eine neue und leichte Art der Wiederherstellung der eingefallenen Nasen aus den Trümmern der alten.
    Magazin für die gesammte heilkunde mit besonderer Rücksicht auf das Militair-Sanitäts-Wesen im königlich-preussischen Staate, Berlin, 1828.
  • Die Transfusion des Blutes und die Infusion der Arzneien in die blutgefässe, u. s. w. Berlin, 1828.
  • Chirurgische Erfahrungen, besonders über die Wiederherstellung zerstörter Theile des menschlichen Körpers nach neuen Methoden.
    (Surgical observations on the Restoration of the Nose)
    3 volumes [in 4] and atlas. Berlin, T. C. F. Enselin, 1829-1834.
    English translation of the section on rhinoplasty, with additional cases and notes by the translator, John Stevenson Buchnan; London, 1833.
  • Neue Heilmethode des Ectropium.
    Magazin für die gesammte heilkunde mit besonderer Rücksicht auf das Militair-Sanitäts-Wesen im königlich-preussischen Staate, Berlin, 1830.
  • Chirurgis curtorum.
    In Johann Nepomuk Rust’s Handbuch der Chirurgie, volume IV, 1831.
    Printed under the title Ueber den organischen Ersatz in Berlin the same year; 2nd edition, separately, 1838.
  • Physiologisch-chirurgische Beobachtungen bei Cholera-Kranken.
    Cholera-Archiv, 1832, 1, Heft 1: 86-105.
    Berlin, 1833; 2nd edition, 1834; French translation, Berlin,1835; Italian, Pavia, 1835.
    First recorded example of cardiac catheterization, performed during an unsuccsessful attempt to obtain blood from a patient suffering from cholera (page 100).
    Reprinted Güstrow, Fr. Opitz, 1834.
  • Anleitung zur Krankenwartung. Berlin, 1832.
    Danish translation by C. L. E. Whitte, Copenhagen, 1833.
  • Glückliche Heilung nach Ausscheidung eines Theiles des Darms und Netzes.
    Wochenschrift für die gesammte Heilkunde, 1836, 4: 401-413.
    First account of a resection in which Antoine Lembert’s (1802-1851) suture was successfully employed.
  • Ueber die Heilung der angeborenen Spaltungen der männlichen Harnröhre.
    Zeitschrift für die gesammte Medicin, Hamburg, 1837, 4: 27-30.
  • Ueber die Durchschneidung der Sehnen und Muskeln.
    Berlin, A. Förstner, 1841.
    Report on 140 cases of tenotomy for treatment of club-foot.
  • Die Heilung des Stotterns durch eine neue chirugische Operation u. s. w.
    Berlin, 1841. English translation by Jos. Travers, London, 1841.
  • Über das Schielen und die Heilung desselben durch die Operation. Berlin, 1842.
    (Report on more than 1.200 operations for squint).
    This paper was awarded the Monthyon Prize of 3.000 francs from the Institut de France.
  • Die operative Chirurgie.
    2 volumes, Leipzig, F. A. Brockhaus, 1845-1848.
    Dieffenbach's most comprehensive work, covering in addition to reconstructive procedures, virtually all other types of procedueres including amputations, paracentesis, laparotomy, hysterectomy, dental extractions, etc. The second volume was published a year after his death by his nephew Dr. Johann Julius Bühring (1815-1855):
  • Der Aether gegen den Schmerz. Berlin, Hirschwald, 1847.
    First application of ether anaesthesia for plastic operations. Dieffenbach made his first use of the anaesthetic in reconstructing a nose. He modified Morton's inhaler. Dieffenbach's work helped bring about the early acceptance of anaesthesia in gemany. Works by others pertaining to Dieffenbach's field of work
  • Paul Scheel (1773-1811):
    Die Transfusion des Blutes und Einspritzung der Arzneyen in die Adern. Historisch und in Rücksicht auf die practische Heilkunde bearbeitet.
    2 volumes. Copenhagen, F. Brummer, 1802-1803.
    The first major work on transfusion since the 17th century and an excellent early history of the subject. Scheel reviewed both transfusion and intravenous injection.
  • Antoine Lembert (1802-1851):
    Mémoire sur l'entéroraphie avec la description d'un procédé nouveau pour pratiquer cette opération chirurgicale.
    Répertoire général d’anatomie et de physiologie pathologiques, Paris, 1826, 2: 10-107.
    Description of what is now known as Lembert's suture, which ensures that serous surface is applied to serous surface in suturing intestine – the foundation of all modern gastric and intestinal surgery. Dieffenbach was the first successfully to employ Lembert's method.
  • Joseph Constantine Carpue:
    An account of two successful operations for restoring a lost nose from the integuments of the forehead in the cases of two officers of H. M. Army; to which are prefixed historical and physiological remarks on the nasal operation; including descriptions of the Indian and Italian methods etc.
    London, 1816; German translation by Heinrich Sabatier Michaelis (1791-1857), Berlin, 1817. Works on Dieffenbach and his time
  • C. Th. Meier:
    Vorträge in der chirurgischen Klinik der königl. Charité zu Berlin. Berlin, 1840.
    On Dieffenbach’s practical-clinical achievements in the Charité before he succeeded Graefe in 1840.
  • Charles Philipps (born 1811):
    La chirurgie de M. Dieffenbach. Berlin, 1840.
    On Dieffenbach’s practical-clinical achievements in the Charité before he succeeded Carl Ferdinand von Graefe in 1840.
  • G. von Breuning:
    J. F. Dieffenbach’s chirurgische Leistungen in Wien. Dargestellt in ihren Erfolgen. Wien, 1841.
We thank Rudolf Kleinert, Bad Reichenhall, Germany, for information submitted.

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