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Jan Evangelista Purkyně

Born 1787
Died 1869

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Czech (Bohemian) anatomist and experimental physiologist, born December 17, 1787, Libochovice, near Leitmeritz, Kingdom Bohemia; died July 28, 1869, Prague, Austria-Hungary.

Biography of Jan Evangelista Purkyně

German spelling: Johannes Evengelista Purkinje, later Johannes Evangelista Ritter von Purkinje
He also spelled his named Purkinie and Purkynje
The birth certificate says Jann Jozef Burkine, with a dot over the e.
We have chosen to use spelling Purkinje for the eponyms because that is the more common.
Purkyně mainly used the phonetic spelling Purkinje until 1850.

Jan Evangelista Purkyně, anatomist and experimental physiologist, was a versatile scholar with wide-ranging interests and an exceptional capacity for innovative thinking. He delivered epoch-making contributions to several different medical disciplines, and was the first to recognise the individuality of fingerprints. Besides his efforts in medicine, Purkyně was a Czech nationalist and had a major influence on Czech cultural life in the middle of the 19th century. He was a friend of the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who admired Purkinje's studies of human vision.

Purkyně was born to a family of Czech peasants. His father was the manager of an estate of Prince Dietrichstein in northern Bohemia. The family surname was Purkyně, but the German priest entered his name as Purkinje in the birth registry. He used this spelling until 1850, from whence he used the correct spelling, Pyrkyně.

Purkinje’s father stimulated interest in and knowledge of nature in his eldest son, although he died when Jan was only six. The local schoolteacher and parson helped the talented boy, who at the age of ten was admitted as a choirboy to a Piarist monastery on another of the Dietrichstein estates, at Mikulov (Nokolsburg) in southern Moravia, near the Austrian border. Initially handicapped because he knew only Czech, Purkinje soon learned both languages of instruction at the Gymnasium, German and Latin, and became one of the best students.

Farewell to monastic tyranny
Having completed his secondary education, Purkinje in 1804 joined the order of the Piarists with the purpose of devoting himself to the education of young people. He thus became a novice under the name of brother Silverius. After a year he began teaching in a Piarist school in Strážnici, Moravia. In 1806 he was sent to Litomys'l in eastern Bohemia to continue his education at the Piarist Philosophical Institute, the obligatory preparation for “higher” university studies (theology, law, medicine). The writings of contemporary philosophers, mainly Johann Gottlieb Fichte's Einige Vorlesungen über die Bestimmung des Gelehrten (Jena, 1794) and Über die Bestimmung des Menschen zur unbeschränkten seelischen Freiheit (Berlin, 1800) led him to abandon an ecclesiastical career in protest "against a continuous slavery to the superiors whose lives and dignity did not always come up to my expectations".

In 1807, freed of the slavery of the monastery, Purkinje walked to Prague – some 300 km – to earn a meagre living by tutoring while he completed his philosophical studies. In 1810 he came to the house of baron Hildprandt of Ottenhausen in Blatná, south of Prague, as a tutor to the baron's son František.

Student in Prague
After three years at Blantá, Purkinje began to study medicine at Prague, planning a career in science rather than in the practice of medicine. Before completing these studies, Purkinje, inspired by the pedagogical work and ideas of the Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) and Philipp Emanuel von Fellenberg, (1771-1844), as well as by Novalis’ Lehrling zu Sais, entertained the idea of founding an institution for education of future scientists.

At that time he attempted his first research, in physics: an analysis of “acoustic waves,” ingeniously fixed on small vibrating glass plates. Lack of guidance, however, prevented his from achieving any significant results, but he did gain grounding in physics that was very valuable for his later work in biology. His most influential teacher was the Bohemian philosopher and mathematician Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848).

Also whilst a medical student, Purkyně began to investigate the physiology of sight by experimenting on himself with a variety of drugs, including Belladonna. His interest in the physiology of light led him to make animated cartoons, and thus he became one of the earliest motion picture pioneers. In 1820 he undertook fundamental studies of vertigo - the basic experiments of which were carried out on the swings and merry-go-rounds of the Prague amusement park. It was his conviction that experiments in one's own body ("in corpore nobili") gave more practical results than those in animal experiment ("in corpore vili") or in fatally ill patients.

Purkyně graduated in 1819 with a thesis, submitted in 1818, on the results of his ophthalmologic research, Beiträge zur Kenntniss des Sehens in subjectiver Hinsicht. This work earned him the protection and friendship of the famous German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Goethe's friendship may later have been instrumental in obtaining for him the chair of physiology and pathology in Breslau. Regarding his series on vision Goethe wrote: "and should you fail to understand, let Purkynì give you a hand"!

Professor in Breslau
Purkyně began his career as prosector and assistant in anatomy at Prague; but his liberal, non-conformist thinking and affiliations doomed to failure his attempts to obtain a permanent appointment. With the help of the Russian surgeon general, Johann Nepomuk Rust (1775-1840), and on the recommendation of the influential Swedish-born Berlin professor Karl Asmund Rudolphi (1771-1832), Purkinje was appointed professor of physiology at Breslau in 1823. The Silesian town of Breslau was then in Russia; it is now Wroclaw in Poland.

The appointment of Purkinje – a Czech – came through in spite of strong opposition from the local faculty. When he introduced demonstrations and laboratory work to the teaching classes, which were at that time new to university education in biology and medicine, the faculty recommended his demotion, but the ministry of education commended his methods.

He soon overcame the initial hostility, won the respect and friendship of his colleagues, and became one of the best-known teachers at the university. In 1827 he married Rudolphi’s daughter Julia, whose death in 1835 left him with two sons, three-year-old Emanuel, the future botanist, and the 11-month-old Karel, the future painter. He did not remarry.

In 1931 he requested for the first time the establishment of an independent institute of physiology, but this proposal was met with outright rejection. However, in November 1839 the world's first independent department of physiology was opened, and in 1842 Purkinje established the Institute of Physiology, the world's first official physiological laboratory. The legal act of establishing such an institute with statutes and an appropriation was a breakthrough highly appreciated by such younger contemporaries as Rudolph Wagner (1805-1864), Rudolf Peter Heinrich Heidenhain (1834-1897), and Emil du Bois-Reymond 1818-1896). Physiological institutes were very rare until the middle of the nineteenth century, but after that their number grew until they became a regular part of medical schools.

No Jews!
In the first part of the nineteenth century Jews were not allowed to hold teaching positions at various faculties of German universities. The first Jew to teach medicine at a Prussian university was the embryologist, physiologist, and neurologist Robert Remak (1815-1865). At the end of 1847 he obtained a lectureship at the University of Berlin. All the daily newspapers carried the account of Remak’s first lecture, since it was the first time a Jew had taught at the University of Berlin. The same year the faculty members of all the Prussian Universities were asked by the Ministry of Education to participate in a faculty vote, and to submit also their individual vote, on the admissibility of Jews to teaching positions in the various faculties. Purkinje, then still professor at Breslau, voted against any change.

Over to Prague
Over the years, Purkinje became less happy in Breslau. The increasingly nationalistic attitude in Germany and the death of some of his supporters in high places intensified his desire to return to Prague. The occasion arose in 1849, when he was appointed to the chair of physiology at Prague, two years after the Czech uprising in 1848. Since 1804 Bohemia, his native country, had been a part of Austria-Hungary, which was strongly affected by the winds of revolution that swept Europe in 1848. That year the so-called Slav Congress in Prague demanded that Austria was to be remade into a league of peoples of equal status. The end of this was that Austrian troops cracked down on a radical uprising in Prague, and the independence of Hungary came to an abrupt end the following year. He entered his chair in 1850, and already in 1851 he was able to open his second institute of physiology.

In Prague, Purkinje was less active as a scientist and his work was no longer as innovative as that of his earlier years. He now devoted more of his energy to organizing and expanding science, especially to promoting education among his Czech countrymen. The return of the vernacular in the eighteenth century led to the adoption of German at the central European universities; thus for many nationalities, including the Czechs, knowledge was the privilege of the few who learned German or another more widely spoken language. Purkinje struggled with his adamant German colleagues for the acceptance of Czech as a teaching language at the University of Prague and worked out a detailed plan for a national academy. Purkinje himself decided to use Czech rather than German or Latin as the language for most of his scientific and educational publications. In 1882, only two years after Purkinje's death, the University of Prague was divided into a German and a Czech university.

Instead of delivering groundbreaking discoveries, Purkinje became an important figure in Czech cultural life. He was elected to the Czech provincial government and was an editor of one of the leading daily newspapers. In 1841 he published a Czech translation of Friedrich Schiller's (1759-1805) poems, and translated works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and the Italian Poet Torquato Tasso (1544-1695) into Czech.

The scientist
Purkinje's scientific achievements were epoch-making. His work included experimental pharmacology, experimental psychology, phonetics, histology, embryology, and physical anthropology. He is counted as the founder of histology. Already before Theodor Schwann (1810-1882) he formulated the so-called cell theory, which states that the cell is the basic unit of animal structures, and that the animal body, like plants, is built by single cells. In describing young animal embryos, he introduced protoplasm as a scientific term.

Purkinje also made important contributions to the structure of bones, cartilaginous tissue, vessels and skin, the build of teeth and various neurological questions. In 1823 he recognised fingerprints as a means of identification, and in 1925 the germinal vesicle, or nucleus of the unripe ovum, that now bears his name. In 1833 he discovered the sweat glands of the skin, and in 1836 noted the protein-digesting power of pancreatic extracts.

Between 1818 and 1825 Purkinje concentrated on the subjective sensory phenomena, studying them by observation and by experiments on himself. In contrast to his contemporaries (mainly Goethe) who made similar observations, Purkinje was aware that the subjective sensory phenomena were neither exceptions to the otherwise clear laws of nature nor a matter of chance, but that they had a physiological basis. From 1820 to 1827 Purkinje studied vertigo and the physiological phenomena of the maintenance of posture and equilibrium and found what is now known as Purkinje's law of vertigo.

Important, but overlooked and unrecognized in its time, was Purkinje’s recommendation that the interior of the eye be examined in light reflected into it by a concave lens, a principle later used by Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821-1894) in his ophthalmoscope (1852).

Purkinje's studies of the avian egg in the body of the female and his discovery and isolation of a minute structure, the germinus vesicle (“Purkinje’s vesicle”), later identified with the cell nucleus – formed a bridge between the large avian egg and the small ova of other animals. It also stimulated the work of Karl Ernst Von Baer (1792-1876) that led in 1827 to the discovery of the ovum in mammals and man. Purkinje’s pupil Adolph Bernhardt in 1835 contributed to the final elucidation of Baer’s interpretation when he observed in the ovum a "germinal vesicle"

Enter Plössl's microscope
Microscopy, too, owes Purkinje a whole lot of improvements. In 1832, the year of Goethe's death, he acquired an achromatic microscope made by Georg Simon Plössl (1794-1868). It was one of the best microscopes at that time – "a jewel of an instrument". Plössl had improved the quality of achromatic microscope objectives and developed the fine adjustment of microscope eyepieces introducing a fine pitch screw.

This was the beginning of a new period in Purkinje's research, with a patient and systematic investigation of structure as the material basis of life phenomena. His research was now directed towards histophysiology and he presented an astonishing array of new findings. In this work Purkinje was the first to use a microtome, a mechanical device for slicing thin tissue sections for microscopic examination. He used glacial acetic acid, potassium bichromate in his pathological or anatomical preparations, and thus became the first to use glass-slide preparations with balsam as a mounting medium. With these techniques he described the sweat glands of the skin in 1833, the ganglion cells of the cerebellum in 1837 and ciliary movements. He discovered the germinal vesicle, or nucleus of the unripe ovum, that now bears his name, in 1825, and noted the protein-digesting power of pancreatic extracts.

In 1841 he wrote to Rudolph Wagner, then professor of physiology, comparative anatomy, and general natural history at Göttingen: “With boundless eagerness I investigated within the shortest time all areas of plant and animal histology, and concluded that this new field was inexhaustible. Nearly every day brought new discoveries, and soon I felt the necessity to make others share my enhanced vision, and to take pleasure of their discoveries."

In the spring of 1868 Purkynì was given the Order of Leopold. He died on July 25, 1868, as Johann Evangelista Ritter von Purkinje in his native country of Bohemia, then a province in the double monarchy of Austria-Hungary - often designated by its two K's - Kaiserlich und Königlich.

Novalis is a pseudonym for Friedrich Leopold Freiherr von Hardenberg (1772-1801).

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