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Ernst Fleischl von Marxow

Born 1846
Died 1891

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Austrian physiologist, born August 5, 1846, Vienna; died October 22, 1891.

Biography of Ernst Fleischl von Marxow

Ernst Fleischl von Marxow was the nephew of the famous physiologist Johann Nepomuk Czermak (1828–1873). He studied in Vienna and Leipzig, a pupil of Ernst Wilhelm Ritter von Brücke (1819–1892), Karl Freiherr von Rokitansky (1804- 1878), and Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig (1816–1895), graduating doctor of medicine in 1870. In 1871 he came to Rokitansky as a prosector and in 1873 became Rokitansky's assistant at the chair of physiology. Despite his young age, Fleischl became a central figure in Vienna's scientific avant-garde. However, through an accident in the dissection room he was infected and was forced to amputate one of his thumbs. This caused an almost constant pain and, despite several attempts by Theodor Billroth (1829–1894) to lessen his suffering surgically, Fleischl's subsequent years became a lasting martyrdom.

Fleischl had to abandon anatomy and turned to physiology, working as an assistant under Brücke. He was habilitated and in 1880 he became professor extraordinary of physiology at the University of Vienna. Fleischl undertook extensive experimental investigations on the irritability of nerves. In 1883, he discovered that following irritation of various sense organs, measurable currents were recognisable on the surface – knowledge that is a major prerequisite for the electroencephalogram.

Another luminary who tried to help Fleischl was the ten years younger Sigmund Freud, with whom he had become acquainted when Freud worked in Brücke's institute. In 1884 Freud had commenced experiments with the alkaloid cocaine, and soon was convinced that he had discovered a superdrug. At this time Freud did not have an adequate income and was generously supported by Fleischl. In order to lessen Fleischl's use of morphine, Freud gave him large doses of cocaine, only to worsen his condition. Heavy doses of cocaine caused chronic poisoning, delirium, and violent seizures. Freud therefore spent several night bedside. He later said that these nights with his sick friend was among the most shocking experiences of his life.

From 1886 to 1892 Brücke was Freud's boss in the Physiological Laboratory at the University of Vienna. Brücke means "bridge" – an association to which Freud calls attention in discussing the "Three Fates" dream. Ernst Fleischl von Marxow and Joseph Paneth (1857-1890) are also characters in Freud's "Non Vixit" dream.

Fleischl became a corresponding member of the Vienna Academy in 1887. Four years later he died of the infection that had caused him twenty years of pain.

Fleischl translated James Clerk Maxwell's (1831–1879) Matter and Motion.

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