- A dictionary of medical eponyms

Martin Heinrich Rathke

Born  1793
Died  1860

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German anatomist, born August 25, 1793, Danzig, Prussia [now Gdansk, Poland]; died September 3, 1860, Königsberg [now Kaliningrad, Russia].

Biography of Martin Heinrich Rathke

Martin Heinrich Rathke was the son of a shipbuilder. He attended the Gymnasium in Danzig and from 1814 studied natural history and medicine at the University of Göttingen. Three years later he moved to Berlin, where he received his M.D. degree in 1818. He then returned to Danzig to practise medicine. In 1825 he became chief physician at the municipal hospital and in 1826 he was named district physician - Kreisphysicus. In 1829 Rathke he was appointed professor of physiology and pathology at the University of Dorpat, remaining in that position until 1835.

While at Dorpat Rathke established contact with Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876), who was then professor at Königsberg. Baer had been a student at Göttingen with Heinrich Christian von Pander (1794-1865), and these three men are recognized as the founders of modern embryology. When Baer left Königsberg for St. Petersburg in 1834, Rathke succeeded him as professor of zoology and anatomy. He joined the faculty at Königsberg in 1835 and remained there until his death.

Rathke travelled extensively. While at Dorpat he visited the Baltic states and Finland, as well as St. Petersburg and Moscow. In 1833, accompanied by two students, he went to the Crimean peninsula to conduct scientific investigations. In 1839, while at Königsberg; he visited Norway and Sweden.

Rathke's research produced significant to contributions to a variety of topics. In his early researches he discovered embryonic precursors of gills in the embryos of higher animals that lack gills as adults. He is best known for his discovery of branchial clefts and branchial arches in the embryos of birds and land animals. He followed the embryological history of these structures and found that the branchial clefts disappear eventually and that the blood vessels adapt themselves to the lungs. He also described and compared the development of the air sacs in birds and the larynx in birds and mammals. In 1838 he published an important study of the pituitary gland and in the following year discovered a diverticulum arising from the embryonic buccal cavity. This embryonic structure is now known as Rathke's pouch.

Rathke was also the first to describe the lancet fish, which previously had been considered the larvae of a mollusk. He also wrote several monographs on crustaceans (both independent and parasitic), mollusks and worms, as well as on a number of vertebrates, including the lemming and various reptiles.

Personally he is said to have been amiable and was generally liked by his colleagues and disciples. Shortly before his death he was given a twenty-fifth anniversary celebration for his years at Königsberg.

Rathke wrote more than 125 articles, monographs, and books. There is a bibliography by Christian Hermann Ludwig Stieda (1837-1918) in Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, XXVII: 352-355.

We thank Andrew Padula for information submitted


  • De Salamandrarum corporibus adiposis, ovariis et oviductibus, eorum evolutione.
    Doctoral dissertation, Berlin, 1818.
  • Beiträge zur Geschichte der Thierwelt. Neueste Schriften der naturforschenden Gesellschaft zu Danzig. 1st part, Danzig, 1820-1824.
  • Bemerkungen über den inneren Bau der Pricke. Danzig, 1826.
  • Untersuchungen über die Bildung und Entwicklung des Flusskrebses. Leipzig, 1829.
  • Abhandlungen zur Bildungs- und Entwicklungs-Geschichte der Menschen und der Thiere. 2 volumes. Leipzig, F. C. W. Vogel, 1832-1833.
  • Zur Morphologie. Reisebemerkungen aus Tauren. Riga and Leipzig, 1837.
  • Ueber die Entstehung der Glandula pituitaria. Archiv für Anatomie, Physiologie und wissenschaftliche Medicin, Berlin, 1838: 482-485.
  • Entwicklungsgeschichte der Natter. Königsberg, 1839.
  • Bemerkungen über den Bau des Amphioxus lanceolatus, eines Fisches aus der Ordnung der Cyclostomas. Königsberg, 1841. Beiträge zur vergleichenden Anatomie und Physiologie, Reisebemerkungen aus Skandinavien, nebst einem Anhange über die rückschreitende Metamorphose der Thiere. Danzig, 1842.
  • Ueber die Entwicklung der Schildkröten. Braunschweig, 1848.
  • Untersuchungen über die Entwicklung und den Körperbau der Krokodile. Braunschweig, 1866.
  • Entwicklungsgeschichte der Wirbeltiere. Leipzig 1861.
    This highly praised work in comparative embryology was published posthumously by the Swiss anatomist, embryologist, and histologist Rudolf Albert von Kölliker (1817-1905) at the request of Rathke's son.
  • Jane M. Oppenheimer:
    The Non-Specificity of the Germinal Layers. Essays in the History of Embryology and Biology.
    Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1967. A reprint with updated bibliography of an article that originally appeared in Quarterly Review in Biology, 1940; 15: 1-27.
  • Erik Nordenskiöld:
    History of Biology. New York, 1928.
  • Vern L. Bullough:
    Martin Heinrich Rathke. In: Charles Coulston Gillispie, editor in chief: Dictionary of Scientific Biographies. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York, 1970, pp. 307-308.
  • T. F. Baskett:
    On the shoulders of Giants: Eponyms and Names in Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
    London, RCOG Press, 1996.
  • Heike Menz:
    Martin Heinrich Rathke (1793-1860). Ein Embryologe des 19. Jahrhunderts.
    Acta Biohistorica 7. Marburg, Basilisken-Presse, 2000. 280 pages.

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