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Johannes Friedrich Miescher-Rüsch

Born 1844
Died 1895

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Swiss physician, born August 13, 1844, Basel; died August 26, 1895, Davos. Johannes Friedrich Miescher-Rüsch was born Miescher. The hyphenated name includes his wife's family name.

Biography of Johannes Friedrich Miescher-Rüsch

Johannes Friedrich Miescher-Rüsch was the son of the Basel professor of anatomy Friedrich Miescher-His (1811-1887) and Charlotte Antonie His (1819-1896). When he was born in 1844, the city of Basel was still suffering from the separation of the town from the surrounding rural half-canton Basel-Land, and working conditions were far from ideal at the university. The young Johannes Friedrich was shy and introspective, but recognized as being highly intelligent, and he did very well at school. Despite an impairment of hearing he shared his father's love of music.
Johannes Friedrich Miescher studied in his native city as well as in Göttingen, Leipzig, and Tübingen. In 1865, while he was still a medical student, Miescher went to Göttingen for the summer in order to work in the laboratory of the organic chemist Adolf Strecker. On his return to Basel he contracted typhoid fever and to interrupt his studies for almost a year. Nevertheless, he obtained his doctorate in Basel in 1868. That year, at the age of twenty-four years, Miescher went to Tübingen to study with Ernst Felix Immanuel Hoppe-Seyler (1825–1895), an ingenious chemist, the man who gave haemoglobin its present name, and who founded and edited the first journal of biochemistry, Zeitschrift für physiologische Chemie.

Working under Hoppe-Seyler, Miescher begins examining used bandages obtained from a hospital caring for the wounded of the Crimean War in hopes of finding something interesting. He eventually succeeds, discovering a substance containing both phosphorus and nitrogen, made up of molecules that were apparently very large, in the nuclei of white blood cells found in pus. He names the substance nuclein because it seemed to come from cell nuclei. It became known as nucleic acid after 1874, when Miescher separated it into a protein and an acid molecule. It is now known as deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The stuff was so unlike other substances already known in the cell that Hoppe-Seyler repeated the work himself before allowing Miescher to publish in his journal.

In 1870, Miescher returned to his native Basel where he was habilitated for physiology in 1871 and already in 1872 was appointed full professor at the University of Basel. In 1878 he married Maria Anna Rüsch (1856-1946).

In Basel, at the headwaters of the Rhine, he found an excellent and more pleasant source of nuclear material in the sperm of the salmon for which, a century ago, the river was celebrated. The nuclei are large in any sperm cells, remarkably so in the salmon’s. From these he first extracted a pure DNA. He and his laboratory went on to characterize these discoveries more precisely; in 1889 a pupil of his, the German pathologist Richard Altmann (1852-1900) introduced the term “nucleic acid”.

Miescher also discovered that it is the carbon dioxide concentration (rather than the oxygen concentration) in the blood that regulates breathing. In 1885 he founded Switzerland's first physiological institute, at the Vesalianum. In 1895 poor health forced him to retire, and he died of tuberculosis in Davos that year. Based on Miescher's correspondence and research by the philosopher Hans Blumenberg, Gerhard Meister (born 1967) wrote a theatrical piece, Miescher's Traum, which has been played on Swiss and German stages.

Miescher, unaware of the laws of genetics discovered by Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), was the first to suggest a genetic code (see Chapter 12 in the book "Die Lesbarkeit der Welt" by Hans Blumenberg).

He was the uncle of Alfred Guido Miescher (1887-1961).

We thank Guido Constant Miescher and Patrick Jucker-Kupper, both Switzerland, for information submitted.

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