Karl Ewald Konstantin Hering

Born 1834
Died 1918

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German physiologist and psychologist, born August 5, 1834, Alt-Gersdorf, Kingdom of Saxony; died January 26. 1918, Leipzig, Germany.

Biography of Karl Ewald Konstantin Hering

Karl Ewald Konstantin Hering was one of the greatest personalities among the German physiologists of his time. He mastered the problem of visual space perception and challenged the colour-vision theory of Hermann von Helmholtz, postulating three types of receptors, each capable of a dual response to pairs of colours yellow-blue, red-green, or black-white. His work on sense physiology also had a great influence on the evolution of modern psychology. Not surprisingly, his name is eponymously associated with Josef Breuer, one of the founders of modern psychology and psychoanalysis.

Hering was the son of a village parson. He attended the Univesity of Leipzig, studying under Ernst Heinrich Weber (1795-1878), Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1887), Otto Funke (1828-1878), and the zoologist Julius Victor Carus (1823-1903). With Carus he spent the winter of 1858-1859 on Sicily to study the genital and excretory organs of Alciopida, a genus of ringed worms. These were the subject of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Leipzig in 1860.

From 1960, Hering practiced medicine and worked as an assistant at the policlinic directed by Ernst Leberecht Wagner (1829-1888), professor of general pathology and pathological anatomy. In 1862 he was habilitated as Dozent (lecturer) in physiology. At that time he began his studies of the physiology of vision.

Professor in Vienna and Leipzig
In 1865 Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig (1816-1895) moved to the new chair of physiology at Leipzig, and Hering succeeded him in the chair of physiology at the military Medico-Surgical Academy, the Josephinum, or Josephs-Akademie, in Vienna. Besides continuing his work on binocular vision, he now also turned to other fields of physiology. The most famous results of these studies were his discovery, with Josef Breuer, of what is now known as the Hering-Breuer reflex.

When the Josephinum was abolished in 1870, Hering was appointed to Jan Evangelista Purkyne's (1787-1869) chair of physiology in Prague. He remained there for twenty-five years, probably never becoming very popular with the locals, since he emphasized the importance of German science and German culture there. In 1882 he was a very important factor in the foundation of the German University in Prague and as a consequence did not accept an invitation to move to Strassburg. At Prague he devoted most of his energy to research in sensory physiology, mainly of vision, and to more general conceptions.

In 1895, this time at Leipzig, Hering succeeded Carl Ludwig once more and remained there for the rest of his life, studying colour phenomena and devising new experiments and instruments for their demonstration in support of his color theory.

Teacher and scientist
Hering was a good teacher but, like many in those days, welcomed controversy and public debate. For example, when he was 29, he attacked Georg Meissner (1829-1905), then professor at Göttingen, on careless mistakes in his studies on vision. In turn he himself was criticised by Hermann Helmholtz for some of his new approaches and ideas. Although Hering had the power to generalize and penetrate to basic problems, his approach could not lead to a significant advance and his theory had little heuristic value.

Hering was responsible for the "psycho-physical theory" of heredity, "that facultative memory, the automatic power of protoplasm to do what it has done before, is the distinctive property of all living matter." His belief that the transmission and reproduction of parental characters are the result of the organism's preconscious memory of the past was an idea subsequently reiterated by Samuel Butler.

Hering attracted many people to work with him including Henry Head (1861-1940) from England and the famous German ophthalmologist Carl von Hess (1863-1923) and Wilhelm Biedermann (1852-1929), a well known physiologist. His son, Heinrich Ewald Hering (1866-1948), achieved eponymic fame in his own right – Hering’s nerves – and held the chair of physiology at Köln.

Most of Hering's articles appeared in Poggendorff’s Annalen (1863, 1865), Archiv für Anatomie und Physiologie (1864, 1865), Archiv für mikroskopische Anatomie (1867), Wiener akademische Sitzungsberichte (1866-1882), Archiv für Ophthalmologie (1869), Jahrbuch Lotos (1880-1888), Archiv für die gesamte Physiologie (1887-1898), and Beiträge zur Physiologie.

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