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Paul Langerhans

Born 1847
Died 1888

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German pathological anatomist, born July 25, 1847, Berlin; died July 20, 1888, Funchal, Madeira.

Biography of Paul Langerhans

Paul Langerhans’s father (1820-1909), for whom he was named, was a well-known physician and President of the Berlin City Council. He had two younger stepbrothers who were also physicians. One of them, Robert (1859-1904), was an assistant to Rudolf Virchow and later became professor of pathology.

Langerhans attended the Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster in Berlin and graduated at the age of sixteen. From 1865 to 1866 he studied medicine at the University of Jena, where he was strongly influenced by Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) and Karl Gegenbaur (1826-1903). He continued his medical studies in Berlin under Heinrich Adolf von Bardeleben (1819-1895), Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896), Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), Julius Cohnheim (1839-1884), and Friedrich Theodor von Frerichs (1819-1885). In 1869 he graduated M.D. At Berlin he was particularly influenced by Virchow and Cohnheim, and he became later a close friend of Virchow’s.

In 1868 using the technique taught to him by Cohnheim, he stained a sample of human skin with gold chloride and described the dendritic cells in the skin which now bear his name and which from their morphology he believed to be nerve cells. It was during his studies for the doctorate at the Berlin pathological institute that he made his second important contribution (1869) of the islet cells of the pancreas.

In 1870 Langerhans accompanied the geographer Johann Samuel Heinrich Kiepert (1818-1899) on an expedition to Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, studying lepra and concerning himself with anthropological-ethnographical work. During his trip Langerhans, stimulated by Virchow’s interest in anthropology, made skull measurements and anthropological observations of the population of Palestine.

During the Franco-Prussian War he joined the German army as a physician and worked in a military hospital. After the conclusion of peace he went for a short while to Leipzig to see Ludwig’s famous physiological institute and the obstetrical clinics of Karl Sigmund Franz Crédé (1819-1892). In 1871 he was offered the position of prosector in pathology at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau, where he also became Privatdozent in the same year and, later, associate professor.

In 1874 tuberculosis of the lung compelled Langerhans to interrupt his academic career. Attempts at cure in Switzerland, Italy, and Germany failed; and in 1875 he settled in Madeira. Its mild climate led to an improvement in his health. In Madeira he later practiced medicine in the capital Funchal, and studied the aetiology of tuberculosis and cautiously supported Virchow’s dualistic view, which differentiated phthisis from tuberculosis. During that time he also published a handbook on Madeira dealing with the climate and curative properties of that island.

During his stay in Madeira, Langerhans became interested in the marine fauna of the Portuguese coast and made important observations on the classifications of invertebrates. He proposed the name Virchowia for one of the new genera of worms which he described to honour his former teacher and friend, and he gave a lecture to the Royal Academy in Berlin on these topics in 1887. He died of a kidney infection in 1888 and was buried in the cemetery of the English church.

Langerhans’ main scientific achievements consist in his studies of human and animal microscopical anatomy. In this field he was among the first successful investigators to explore the new area of research with novel methods and staining techniques. In his inaugural dissertation in 1869 Langerhans immortalized his name by the discovery of characteristic cell islands in the pancreas named for him. The investigations for this work, Beiträge zur mikroskopischen Anatomie der Bauchspeicheldrüse, were conducted in Virchow’s laboratory. The paper presented the first careful and detailed description of the microscopic structure of the pancreas.

Another important contribution, made with Friedrich Albin Hoffmann (1843-1924) in Virchow’s laboratory, dealt with the macrophage system. Langerhans and Hoffmann studied the intravital storage of cinnabar injected intravenously in rabbits and guinea pigs. They were able to show that cinnabar was taken up by white blood corpuscles but never the red. They also demonstrated the deposit of cinnabar in fixed cells of the bone marrow, in the capillary system, and in the connective tissue of the liver. This was one of the pioneer investigations that later led to Ludwig Aschoff’s (1866-1942) concept of the reticuloendothelial system.

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