Ernst Wilhelm Ritter von Brücke

Born 1819
Died 1892

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German physiologist, born June 6, 1819, Berlin; died January 7, 1892, Vienna, Austria.

Biography of Ernst Wilhelm Ritter von Brücke

Ernst Wilhelm Ritter von Brücke was the son of Johann Gottfried Brücke, a painter of portraits and historical motives. He attended the Gymnasium in Stralsund and from 1838 studied medicine at the universities of his native city of Berlin. Even though he became a doctor instead, he dealt throughout his life so intensively with questions concerning the theory of art that they form an integral part of his work.

He was graduated as a doctor of medicine and surgery in November 1842. According to the rules of the Berlin University at that time, candidates had to wait for two years between receiving the doctorate and habilitation as Privatdozent. It was thus not until the end of the year 1844 he became Privatdozent the University of Berlin, teaching physiology. But as early as in the autumn of 1843 he got a position as assistant at the Museum of Comparative Anatomy, of which Johannes Peter Müller (1801-1858), Brücke's final teacher as a student, was the director, and worked unofficially as a prosector, as the prosector, Wilhelm Karl Hartwig Peters (1815-1883) was absent on a scientific journey. Johann Müller’s circle of friends and colleagues at the time included Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821-1894), Emil Heinrich Du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896), and, indirectly, Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig (1816-1895). Brücke formed lifelong friendships with all these men.

In the autumn of 1846, besides his position as assistant, Brücke also became teacher of anatomy at the Berlin Academy of Beautiful Arts (bildende Kunste). In the autumn of 1848 he became professor extraordinary of physiology in Königsberg, replacing Karl Friedrich Burdach (1776-1847). The following year he was appointed to the chair of physiology and higher (microscopic) anatomy at the University of Vienna, where from the beginning of the summer season of 1849 he was uninterruptedly active as professor and leader of the institute of physiology. The school of physiology he founded in Vienna eventually extended far beyond the borders of Austria. Brücke’s laboratory trained a large number of the most accomplished physiologists of the next generation. Sigmund Freud, who worked there from 1876 to 1882, considered Brücke the most highly respected teacher and the greatest authority in the field he had ever met. Brücke and two of Freud's colleagues who also worked for him, Ernst Fleischl von Marxow (1846-1891), and Joseph Paneth (1857-1890), are all characters in Freud's "Non Vixit" dream (in his Traumdeutung – "The Interpretation of Dreams" – 1900).

Brücke was active in most fields of physiology. His microscopical works were epoch-making and influential for our knowledge of the nature of cells («Elementarorganismen»), and his optical works laid the foundation for the invention of the eye mirror which was later constructed by Helmholtz and represented a major leap in investigations of the eye. In his work Grundzüge der Physiologie und Systematik der Sprachlaute für Linguisten und Taubstummenleher (1856) he has a comprehensive analysis of the sounds of European and Oriental languages as to the way these sounds are produced. He also wrote other important works on the physiology of language.

Brücke investigated the physiology of nerves and muscles, the organs of speech, the blood, digestion and other themes. In the field of chemistry he vitalised research on albumin. He also developed an artificial language, said to be based on sounds directly connected to emotional elements (Sinneselementen). His ambition was the mutual understanding of people of different languages, as well as improved opportunities of expressing themselves for the deaf mutes.

In 1873 he decided to publish his Vienna lectures, which went through several editions. His written works contend the results of his examinations, among them on the eyeball, the biliary ducts, the chylus vessels (Chylusgefässe), the blood corpuscles, the effect on electricity on muscles and the change of colour in chameleons.

It is said the Brücke was one of the most versatile physiologists of his time. His Lectures on physiology (1873-1874), confirms this; in it he added something new of his own to almost every chapter.

When Brücke resigned his teaching position in 1890, he had 143 publications. The range of this output is made evident by the number of different areas of work: physics, plant physiology, microscopic anatomy, physiological chemistry, physiological optics, and purely experimental physiology.

Already in 1849 Brücke was elected full member of the newly founded Wiener Akademie der Wissenschaften. Several other honours were bestowed upon him, among them the dignified title of Court Counsellor, life membership of the Austrian Herrenhaus from 1879, rector of the university, the Order of Franz Joseph and the Order of Leopold - the latter elevating himself and his family to the nobility (Ritterstand). He was also awarded the Prussian order of merit - Pour le Mérite, he was a member of the academies of Berlin, Munich et al, and several times a doctor of honour.

His grandson, Ernst Theodor von Brücke (1880-1942), was professor of physiology in Innsbruck.

    "I was a demonstrator at the Physiological Institute and was due to start work early in the morning. It came Brücke's ears that I sometimes reached the students' laboratory late. One morning he turned up punctually at the hour of opening and awaited my arrival. His words were brief and to the point. But what he said was not important; what overwhelmed me were the terrible blue eyes with which he gazed at me and before which I perished..."
    Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, page 422.

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