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Heinrich Ernst Albers-Schönberg

Born 1865-01-21
Died 1921-06-06

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German radiologist and surgeon, born January 21, 1865, Hamburg; died June 6, 1921, Hamburg.

Biography of Heinrich Ernst Albers-Schönberg

Heinrich Ernst Albers-Schönberg was the son of the Hamburg merchant August Heinrich Albers-Schönberg and his wife Amélie, née Des Arts. He received his schooling in the Gelehrtenschule of the Hamburger Johanneum. With breaks for military duties, from the autumn of 1885 he studied medicine in Tübingen and Leipzig, qualifying in Leipzig in February 1891. He was popular with his fellow students, who were attracted by his sense of humour and zest for life.

In March 1891 he obtained his doctorate under Heinrich Curschmann (1846-1910) with the thesis Einige mit Kochschen Tuberkulin behandelte Fälle. He subsequently worked as a voluntary with professor Max Saenger (1853-1903) in Saenger's women's clinic in Leipzig, and in 1892 became assistant physician in the department for women and children at the newly established Allgemeines Krankenhaus Hamburg-Eppendorf, where he remained until 1894. In recognition of his self-sacrificing activity during the cholera epidemic he was granted an education journey to Berlin and Vienna. Following a year as assistant physician at Paul Zweifel’s (1848-1927) clinic in Leipzig, as well as a visit to Paris, he settled in Hamburg as a practitioner in 1895. In September 1896 he married the younger daughter of senator Dr. Schroeder in Hamburg, and his son Ernst was born in 1897.

Albers-Schönberg immediately understood the importance of Røntgen's discovery and in 1897, in collaboration with Georg Deycke (1865-1940), he established a private institution for the application of radiographic techniques to internal medicine. He gave up his private practice to concentrate his efforts entirely on radiology, becoming the first specialist in this field of medicine. That year, 1897, with Georg Deycke (born 1865), he founded the journal Fortschritte auf dem Gebiete der Röntgenstrahlen.

When Deycke moved to Constantinople he continued running the institute as well as the journal alone. In 1903 Albers-Schönberg was appointed radiologist to the Hamburg Hospital and two years later became head of radiology. In 1915 he moved to a similar post at Allgemeines Krankenhaus St. Georg, Hamburg. He had considerable talent for organization and designed a new radiographic department. This was commissioned in 1915 and served as a model for future developments in this field.

The first German Roentgen Congress was held in Berlin from April 30 until May 3, 1905. On May 2, 1905 the Deutsche Röntgen-Gesellschaft (The German Roentgen Society) was founded within the course of the II Physical Meeting of the Congress, with Albers-Schönberg among the founding members.

In 1904 Albers-Schönberg received the Grand Prize of the world fair in St. Louis. His diagnostic X-ray pictures far exceeded any of the competitors' work in clarity. In 1907 the Prussian Kultusministerium honoured him with the title of professor. During the years 1907, 1909 and 1913 he was a member of the German branch of the International Physiotherapy Congress in Rome, Paris, and Berlin.

During World War I Albers-Schönberg was consultant to the Ninth Army Corps and he subsequently received a Red Cross medal. Academic awards followed from the universities of Würzburg, Heidelberg and Breslau. His career reached its peak in 1919 when the University of Hamburg bestowed a special honour upon him by electing him as ordentlicher - full - professor, in recognition of his phenomenal contribution to radiology. He held this tenure, the first full professorship of its kind, until his death.

Albers-Schønberg was a tall and stately man, an elegant appearance and a man of distinction, but also friendly, sincere, and ready to help. However, his careless manners in dealing with X ray equipment made him pay a high price for his outstanding success. In these pioneer days of radiology little was known about the dangers of radiation. He developed radiation-induced neoplasia in his hands in 1908 and his right middle finger and left arm were amputated. Tumours in his thorax and shoulder gave him great pain but, undeterred, he went on to develop practical techniques for the rehabilitation of wartime amputees. Great suffering marred the last few months of his life. He died on June 4, 1921, at the age of 56 years from cardiac failure consequent upon pneumonia. It was typical of his generosity of spirit that he left directions that the results of his autopsy should be published in the interest of other sufferers.

Albers-Schönberg’s most important works concern exposure techniques. His main oeuvre is Die Röntgentechnik, a book on radiographic techniques for physicians and students. This work was translated into Italian and Russian and appeared in many editions. Through his compression diaphragm and other technical innovations he has made invaluable contributions to diagnostics. He influenced gynaecologists to treat the problem of radiation seriously. In 1903 he made the important discovery that irradiation had a damaging effect on the reproductive glands of rabbits, a discovery which induced the development of effective methods of protection - and of research into sterilisation. Hardly any field, in which X-rays can be applied, was left unmarked by Albers-Schönberg.

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