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Franz Nissl

Born 1860
Died 1919

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German psychiatrist and neuropathologist, born September 9, 1860, Frankenthal, Pfalz; died August 11, 1919, München.

Biography of Franz Nissl

Franz Nissl was born in Frankenthal in the Bavarian Palatinate, the son of Theodor Nissl and Maria Haas. Nissl's father, who taught Latin in a Catholic school, intended his son to become a priest but, against his parents' wishes, Nissl entered the study of medicine at the University of Munich.

Already while he was still a student at Munich, Sigbert Josef Maria Ganser (1853-1931), professor von Gudden's assistant, suggested he write an essay on the pathology of the cells of the cortex of the brain. This he undertook in 1884, when the Medical Faculty of Munich offered a competition for a prize in neurology. Nissl employed alcohol as a fixative and developed a staining technique which he improved upon in such a way that he was able to demonstrate a number of previously unknown constituents of nerve cells. Nissl won the prize, and wrote his doctoral dissertation on the same topic in 1885.

The judge was Johan Bernhard Aloys von Gudden (1824-1886), who was so impressed with Nissl's work that he offered him an assistantship. From 1885 to 1888 he was assistant at the Oberbayerische Kreis-Irrenanstalt Haar in Munich, headed by von Gudden, until his chief was killed by the mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria on June 13, 1886. For a brief period of time he worked in the institution Blankenheim at Blankenhain in Weimar, until he, in 1889, went to Frankfurt am Main as second in position under Emil Sioli (1852-1922) at the Städtische Irrenanstalt. There he met the comparative neurologist Ludwig Edinger (1855-1919) and the neuropathologist Carl Weigert (1845-1904). Thanks to his contacts with Weigert, who was developing a neuroglial stain, Nissl added a great deal to our understanding of mental and nervous diseases by relating them to observable changes in glia cells, blood elements, blood vessels and brain tissue in general.

In Frankfurt he also met Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915) with whom he worked for seven years. They became very close friends and collaborators and together they edited the Histologische und histopathologische Arbeiten über die Grosshirnrinde (1904-1921). Nissl was the best man when Alzheimer's married Cäcilia Geisenheimer in Frankfurt in April 1894.

In 1895, invited by Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926), Nissl moved to the University of Heidelberg as assistant physician. Here was habilitated and became Privatdozent in 1896, extraordinarius in 1901, and in 1904 became full professor and director of the department of psychiatry when Kraepelin went to Munich.

The burden of teaching and administration, combined with poor research facilities, forced Nissl to leave many scientific projects unfinished. He also suffered from a kidney disease. World War I proved to be an even greater burden for he was commissioned to administer a large military hospital as well. In 1918, again at Kraepelin's invitation, Nissl moved to Munich to work in a research position at the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Psychiatrie. After one year working with Korbinian Brodmann (1868-1918) and Walter Spielmeyer (1879-1935) he died of kidney disease.

Nissl was possibly the greatest neuropathologist of his day and also a fine clinician who popularised the use of spinal puncture introduced by Heinrich Irenaeus Quincke (1842-1922). He was nicknamed "punctator maximus". Apart from his studies on the structure of the neurones, he examined connections between the cortex and the thalamic nuclei. This work was still in progress when he died.

Outwardly Nissl was a gnome of a man, with bad posture and a tilting of the head due perhaps to an effort to conceal the large bitemark on the left side of his face. He remained a bachelor who had a very keen sense of humour, but whose life revolved entirely around his work.

The story is told that one morning he placed a row of empty beer bottles outside his laboratory and made sure a rumour reached his chief, Kraepelin, that he could be found lying under his desk, dead drunk. Kraepelin was a fierce campaigner against alcohol.

Nissl was very found of music, and a competent pianist. Hugo Spatz (1888-1969) relates their first meeting to negotiate for a place in Nissl's laboratory. Nissl was busy this morning and asked the student to come to his home at twelve. Noon struck but Nissl was not at home. Finally his housekeeper said the professor must have meant midnight. At midnight, Spatz had to wait in the anteroom for half an hour until Nissl had finished the piano sonata he was playing. The conversation lasted until daybreak.

    "As soon as we agree to see in all mental derangements the clinical expression of definite disease processes in the cortex, we remove the obstacles that make impossible agreement among alienists." 1896.

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