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Wilhelm His

Born 1831
Died 1904

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Swiss anatomist and embryologist, born July 9, 1831, Basel; died May 1, 1904.

Biography of Wilhelm His

Wilhelm His was educated in Basel and Bern, in Berlin under Johannes Peter Müller (1801-1858) and Robert Remak (1815-1865), in Würzburg under Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), and also studied in Prague and Vienna. He obtained his medical doctorate in 1854, and was habilitated in Basel two years later. In 1857 he became professor ordinarius of anatomy and physiology at Basel. In 1872 he moved to Leipzig to assume the chair of anatomy. Here he also had a strong influence on planning of the new anatomical institute that was opened in Liebigstrasse in 1875.

His took a part in the founding of the journal Archiv für Anthropologie, and in 1876-1878, with Christian Wilhelm Braune (1831-1892), established the journal Zeitschrift für Anatomie und Entwicklungsgeschichte. He remained the editor of this also after it became the anatomical part of the Archiv für Anatomie und Physiologie. He published many papers in this journal, as well as in Abhandlungen der Königlich sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, in particular on the developmental history of the nervous system.

His taught at the universities of Basel (1857-72) and Leipzig (1872-1904), where he founded an institute of anatomy. In 1865 His invented the microtome, a mechanical device used to slice thin tissue sections for microscopic examination.

Wilhelm His created the science of histogenesis, or the study of the embryonic origins of different types of animal tissue. He is also one of the originators of the neuron theory. In October 1886, he put forward the idea that the nerve-cell body and its prolongations form an independent unit. In 1889 he coined the term dendrite for some of the appendices in nerve cells.

Wilhelm His succeeded in demonstrating that human remains found in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig were in fact those of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). He thus showed that Bach was of medium build He helped the sculptor Carl Seffner create a possibly authentical Bach monument that still stands outside the Thomaskirche. This was unveiled in 1908.

    "For the progress and success of one's own intellectual labours it is more advantageous to be burdened with a moderate number of obligations than to possess absolute freedom. In particular I have often found that at the beginning of a desired vacation, simultaneously with the appearance of the ability to dispose freely of one's time, there is also a relaxation of intellectual tension which can only be overcome gradually and by compulsion."
    Lebenserinnerungen, "Abschluss der Studienzeit".

    «Ich bin nicht für ein blindes Hinwegräumen aller Studienschranken, für ein Loslassen aller Realschüler und Frauen auf unsere edle und schwierige Wissenschaft.»
    Prof Dr. med. Wilhelm His (1831-1905)

His son, Wilhelm His Jr. (1863-1934) became a famous biochemist, internist and cardiologist. In 1887, he discovered the body's ability to methylate organic compounds by isolating N-methyl pyridinium hydroxide from the urine of dogs dosed with pyridine acetate. He is best remembered for his discovery in 1893 of the specialized muscle fibres, known as the "bundle of His", the only known direct connection between the ventricles and the atria that conducts impulses to the ventricular heart muscle. In 1907, he became director of the First Medical Clinic Charité in Berlin. He pioneered studies in cardiac conduction and coined the term "heart block", which he identified as the cause of Adams-Stokes syncopes. He also campaigned to promote disclosure of the composition of proprietary drugs.

We thank Guido Constant Miescher, Switzerland, for information submitted.

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