Johann Friedrich Meckel, the Younger
Biography of Johann Friedrich Meckel, the Younger
Johann Friedrich Meckel, known as the Younger, was destined to become a physician. He was born in Halle in 1781 to a family of prominent physicians. His father, Philipp Friedrich Theodore Meckel (1756-1803) was professor of anatomy and surgical obstetrics at the University of Halle and his grandfather, Johann Friedrich Meckel the Elder (1724-1774), one of Haller’s most brilliant disciples, had occupied the same prestigious chair. Meckel's younger brother, August Albrecht Meckel (1790-1892) also had the family's academic attributes and became professor of anatomy and forensic medicine at the University of Bonn in 1821. Johann Friedrich jr., however, as a child had an outspoken aversion against medicine in general, and anatomy in particular, maybe a consequence of his having to help his father perform dissections.
Still he did become a physician - even the greatest og his family, and one of the greatest anatomists of his time. His painstaking observations in comparative and pathological anatomy furnished a wealth of new knowledge, which Meckel attempted to organize along certain evolutionary schemes popular in his day.
Meckel's father was summoned to St. Petersburg in 1797 in order to deliver the Czarina's child and Meckel, who was then aged 16 years, had the privilege of accompanying him on this journey. In the following year he commenced his medical studies at Halle, then a bastion of academic freedom and objective scientific inquiry. Among his teachers were Kurt Sprengel (1766-1833), famous for his botanical and historical studies, and, above all, his mentor Johann Christian Reil (1759-1813), who inspired Meckel’s studies in cerebral anatomy and was the true leader of the local medical school.
After studying anatomy under the direction of his father - he apparently detested the discipline in the beginning - Meckel transferred in 1801 to the University of Göttingen. There he studied comparative anatomy with the famous physician and anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840).
Meckel received his medical doctorate in 1802 in Halle with the dissertation On malformations of the heart using his family's private collection of anatomical specimens. Meckel expanded the topic and eventually published it as an article in Reil’s journal, the Archiv für die Physiologie.
Following his graduation Meckel undertook further studies in Würzburg, then a stronghold of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling’s (1775-1854) philosophy of nature, and Vienna, where he met Johann Peter Frank (1745-1821). In 1803 Meckel temporarily interrupted his travels, returning to Halle at his father’s death. Thereafter he went to Paris where he met and worked with Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844), and Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1759). Together with Cuvier, Meckel systematically analysed the immense anatomical and zootomical collection at the Jardin des Plantes. The available material, sent back from Napoleon’s campaigns abroad, was described by Cuvier in his Leçons d’anatomie comparée. Meckel translated Cuvier’s five-volume work into German, a task which he completed in 1810.
Meckel, appointed associate professor, returned to his native Halle in 1806 under tragic circumstances. The Napoleonic forces had occupied the city and dissolved the local university. Napoleon used Meckel’s home as temporary headquarters, an intrusion which may have aided in preserving the valuable anatomical collection of the Meckel family.
Meckel displayed the same intellectual abilities as his father and grandfather and he was soon - in 1808 - appointed a full professor of normal and pathological anatomy, surgery and obstetrics at Halle, replacing Justus Christian von Loder (1753-1832), who had gone to Moscow. He remained in Halle until his death and set a harsh working schedule for himself. He gradually withdrew from social activities and grew bitter in the face of the academic mediocrity surrounding him. Furthermore, Meckel was impatient with the bureaucratic fetters imposed by the Prussian government, which treated Halle as a secondary and provincial city compared to the capital, Berlin.
In his achievements Meckel attracted large numbers people to his lectures at Halle, which was then the centre of comparative anatomy in Germany.
In 1815 Meckel became the editor of Reil’s journal, then known as Deutsches Archiv für die Physiologie, which listed among its distinguished collaborators Johann Herrmann Ferdinand von Autenrieth (1772-1835), Blumenbach, Ignaz Döllinger (1770-1841), Karl Frederick Kielmeyer (1765-1844), Sprengel, and others. Meckel wrote a preface to the first volume stressing that only articles based on observations and experiments would be printed. He hoped that such an approach would gradually prevail in German science in order to obviate the ridicule incurred by speculation. But Meckel also decried mindless experimentation.
An early article concerned the development of the central nervous system in mammals, a study followed by new observations related to the evolution of the gut, heart, and lungs. Intersperses with these careful monographs were numerous shorter articles. They covered subject matters as varied as the generation of earthworms, bleeding diatheses, development of human teeth, and the cerebral anatomy of birds.
From 1826 until his death, Meckel was the editor of the Archiv für Anatomie und Physiologie, a continuation of the previous publication. His last articles dealt to a considerable degree with malformations as well as with vascular and pulmonary development.
Although influenced by the contemporary ideas of Naturphilosophie, Meckel rejected pure speculation and stressed instead the acquisition of empirical data from which certain useful conclusions could be derived. Meckel's adherence to a Lebenskraft or vital force, however, and denial of mechanical factors in embryological development were strongly disputed by successors who viewed life in strict physicochemical terms. Although his interpretations rapidly became obsolete, Meckel’s material remained an extremely valuable source for those interested in comparative anatomy and in congenital malformations.
Among his most lasting and impressive contributions was the study of the abnormalities occurring during the embryological development. Hence, Meckel’s teratology was the first comprehensive description of birth defects, a detailed and sober analysis of a topic which had hitherto been approached with a great deal of fantasy and moral bias.
Meckel's personal life was less successful than his professional career, although his wife took a great interest in anatomy, running the family museum of anatomical preparations. It was she, too, that introduced him to social life, making their home a meeting point of the leading aristocrats of the country. His unheard of working capacity and internationally renowned research resulted in honourable invitations as well as academic awards from several universities, among them the University of Stockholm.
Although dynamic and witty in early adulthood, he became increasingly intolerant and autocratic as middle age approached. Meckel suffered from a painful long-standing disorder of the liver, which probably contributed to these personality traits. His friends described him as proud, domineering, impulsive, irritated and intolerant, totally lacking the ability to compromise, continually being drawn into struggles with his colleagues. His position as dean of the faculty of medicine gave him amble opportunities for conflicts - which never ended before the death of the antagonist. He eventually became paranoid, retired at the age of 50 years and spent the last two years of his life as a recluse. His marriage was childless and with his death in 1833, at the age of 52 years, the academic tradition of the Meckel family was brought to a close.
His epoch-making discoveries in comparative anatomy earned him the byname of the «German Cuvier.»