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Richard von Volkmann

Born 1830
Died 1889

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German surgeon, born August 17, 1830, Leipzig; died November 28, 1889, Jena.

Biography of Richard von Volkmann

Richard Volkmann was born in Leipzig, the son of Alfred Wilhelm Volkmann (1800-1877), the great physiologist, who at that time was Privatdozent. Richard studied in Halle and Giessen and graduated from the University of Berlin with a doctoral degree in 1854. He was assistant in Ernst Blasius's (1802-1875) surgical clinic and in 1857 was habilitated as a Privatdozent in surgery at Halle, then severed his connections to the clinic, becoming a much sought practitioner. In 1863 he resumed his academic career, becoming professor extraordinary of surgery at Halle, and in 1867 was appointed full professor of surgery as well as director of the Halle university surgical clinic. He remained in Halle until his retirement.

He was active as a surgeon during Seven Weeks' War with Austria in 1866 and the Franco-Prussian war 1870/1871, in the latter as consulting Generalarzt with the 4th army corps, later with the Maas-army and eventually with the southern army.

Richard Volkmann was one of the most brilliant of German surgeons in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He distinguished himself in advancing the introduction of antiseptic wound treatment in Germany. During the Franco-Prussian war a simplified form of the techniques recommended by Joseph Lister (1827-1912) was used in treating battle wounds, but the results were disappointing. However, Volkmann became a doughty devotee after 1872, when his hospital at Halle, overcrowded with wounded soldiers and so dreadfully infected that its closure was imminent, obtained astonishing benefits from Listerian techniques. He first utilized Listerian antisepsis on December 1, 1872, some five years after the technique had first been used successfully in Germany by Karl Thiersch (1822-1995) of Leipzig.

Shortly after the war, in 1872, Volkmann, Gustav Simon (1824-1876), and Bernhard von Langenbeck (1810-1887) formed the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Chirurgie (German Surgical Society). Over the years, Volkmann's international reputation continued to grow and his advice was sought by surgeons in Europe, England, and the United States. In 1879, he established a new clinic in Halle which became a centre of surgical instruction in Europe.

Volkmann became a Geheimer Medizinalrath – Privy Medical Counsellor – in 1877 and was knighted by the German Emperor William I (Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig, of Hohenzollern, 1797-1888) in 1885, becoming Richard von Volkmann. He died of paralysis due to a chronic spinal disease, following a prolonged illness, in the Binswanger institution in Jena (named for Otto Ludwig Binswanger, 1852-1929) in 1889.

Volkmann was particularly interested in the surgery of joints and extremities, and of cancer surgery. He performed the first excision of carcinoma of the rectum in 1878. He tried to treat tuberculosis in bones and joints by iodine, cod liver oil and diet which heralded attempts at preventive surgery.

Richard von Volkmann was described as a doctor who would go anywhere and do anything to save a patient,

Volkmann possessed a literary great ability and under the pen name Richard Leander wrote poetry and a book entitled "Dreams by French Firesides" which has a permanent place in German literature. Some of his stories were written when he was a war surgeon.

From 1870 Volkmann published the Sammlung klinischer Vorträge (Leipzig) in which contributing physicians and professors addressed many of the controversial medical topics of the time, including Joseph Lister's theory on antiseptic wound treatment.

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