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.

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