Erik Adolf von Willebrand
Biography of Erik Adolf von Willebrand
Erik Adolf von Willebrand was born in the port city Vaasa, the son of the district engineer Fredrik Magnus von Willebrand and his wife Signe Estlander. After passing the baccalaureate in Vasa in 1888 he entered medical studies at the University of Helsingfors. During the summers of 1894 and 1895 he worked as a physician in Mariehamn, the capital of the Åland islands, partly as a cholera doctor and partly as a subordinate physician to the Mariehamn spa. Here he learned about “Ålandic haemorrhagic disease”. He qualified as a doctor in 1896, and in 1899 he defended a doctoral thesis that dealt with his investigations into the changes in blood after a serious loss of blood, Zur Kenntnis der Blutveränderungen nach Aderlassen. For the rest of his life von Willebrand remained interested in blood and especially in its coagulation properties.
He spent his internship and period as assistant physician 1897-1900 at the Deaconess Institute in Helsinki – Diakonisseanstaltens sjukhus, founded in 1867. He was a lecturer in anatomy from 1901 to 1903 and then worked in the department of physiology at Helsinki University. In 1903 he gained his Docent in physical therapy and subsequently taught microscopical anatomy and gave lectures with practical exercises. In 1908 he also became docent of internal medicine. Here he described blood changes during muscular exercise, metabolism and obesity and CO2 and water exchange through the human skin.
From 1908 until his retirement in 1935 von Willebrand was a member of the department of medicine at the Deaconess Institute, where he was physician-in-chief between 1922 and 1931. After retiring he continued teaching as a deputy professor, giving lecture on clinical laboratory methods and internal diseases. He received the title of professor in 1930. On his 75th birthday he wrote an article with the title En genetisk blodsykdom blant innbyggerne på Åland (a genetical blood disease among the inhabitants of Åland). He was known for his modesty and integrity, and in his obituary it was said that he “usually preferred to discuss his observations of nature rather than his personal achievements”. He died on September 12, 1949, 79 years of age.
Von Willebrand published two papers on Physiology and Clinical Management in Treatment with Hot Air” (the Finnish sauna!). Throughout his lifetime he maintained his interest in the latter form of treatment as well as in metabolic disorders and haematological problems.
In 1925 von Willebrand was asked to examine a 5-year old girl named Hjørdis from a village on the Åland islands. Both her mother and father belonged to families with histories of bleeding. She was the ninth of twelve children, of which four had died from uncontrolled bleeding at an early age. Intrigued by the disease of the girl and by her family history, Von Willebrand travelled the Åland islands to study the disease further. He mapped the pedigree and found that 23 of the 66 family members had bleeding problems, and that more women than men were affected.
In his account of this family in 1926, Willebrand concluded that this was a previously unknown form of haemophilia and termed it pseudo-haemophilia with a prolonged bleeding time as its most prominent sign. Minot in Boston, who described similar families in 1928, noted his findings.
Willebrand’s article of 1926 was in Swedish. In 1931 he published an article about the disease in the German language. This caught the attention of Rudolf Jürgens, professor at the Berlin University clinic. Jürgens contacted von Willebrand in order to investigate Willebrand’s patients with a kapillärtrombometer, an apparatus he had built in collaboration with others. Jürgens concluded that the bleeding tendency in von Willebrand’s patients was caused by a disturbed function of thrombocytes, a view that proved to be wrong.
Von Willebrand was described as a very modest man.
We thank Dennis J. Cunniff, M.D., and Clara Lindberg for information submitted. Erik Adolf von Willebrand was Clara Lindberg's great grandfather.