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Samuel Thomas Soemmerring

Born 1755
Died 1830

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From 1808: Samuel Thomas von Soemmerring. German physician, anatomist, palaeontologist, and inventor, born January 18, 1755, Thorn an der Weichsel, Westpreussen (now Toruń at the Vistula, Poland); died March 2, 1830, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Biography of Samuel Thomas Soemmerring

Samuel Thomas Soemmerring was one of those rare geniuses who excel in several, quite different fields. He was the first to draw attention to the white matter of the brain - and in 1809 invented an electric telegraph. Soemmerring’s maturity coincided with the French Revolution and the subsequent political disorders in Germany. Yet despite the instability of his career, his writings made him the most famous German anatomist of the early nineteenth century. His works were characterized by a fully developed presentation of the text and by actually accurate illustrations of considerable artistic merit.

Soemmerring was the ninth child of the municipal physician of Toruń (German name Thorn), Johann Thomas Soemmerring (1701-1781) and the former Regina Geret (born 1721), a pastor’s daughter. The family was upper middle class. After attending the Gymnasium in Toruñ (1769-1774), Soemmerring studied medicine from 1774 to 1778 at Göttingen, where his teachers were Heinrich August Wrisberg (1739-1808), Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) and Ernst Gottfried Baldinger (1738-1804)

The young man as an anatomist
While still a student Soemmerring had decided to become an anatomist; the prerequisites for this career were a gift for observation and skill in drawing. His father did not approve of his choice of career but, by accepting various privations, Soemmerring was able to pursue his plans without his father’s assistance and earned the M.D. on April 7, 1778, with a dissertation on the base of the brain and the origin of the cranial nerves. With the aid of his own illustrations he criticized earlier accounts and produced a classification of the twelve cranial nerves which superseded that of Thomas Willis (1621-1675) and is still taught.

His teachers, Baldinger and Wrisberg, gave him excellent testimonials and with his dissertation the basis for fame was laid. In the year of his promotion he undertook an educational journey to Northern Germany, Holland, and England, spending the winter in Edinburgh, from where he returned in 1779.

He worked with John (1728-1793) and William Hunter (1718-1783) in England, Alexander Munro, Secundus (1733-1817) in Scotland and Peter Camper (1722-17899 in Holland. In London he met the natural scientist and circumnavigator of the world, Johann George Adam Forster (1754-1794), who later assured for him a position as teacher of anatomy and surgery at the Carolinum in Kassel. His exchange of letters with Forster was published by Hermann Theodor Hettner (1821-1882) in 1878.

The elephant man of Kassel
In April 1779, shortly after his return to Göttingen, Soemmerring became professor of anatomy and surgery at the Collegium Carolinum in Kassel. He remained there until the fall of 1784, when, on the invitation of the Elector of Mainz, he assumed the professorship of anatomy and physiology at the University of Mainz, holding this tenure until 1797. In this period he went on several travels to England and Switzerland, and was also interrupted by the French occupation (October 1792-July 1793). In Kassel, Soemmerring joined the Free Masons and the Rosenkreuzer – the Rosary Order. Both Kassel and Mainz were important cultural centres where arts and sciences were encouraged by discerning rulers.

At Kassel, Soemmerring was permitted to dissect animals that had died in the menagerie and to examine the corpses of members of the city’s Negro colony. In 1780 he sectioned and prepared an elephant that had died from an accident following an opera performance.

In 1884 Soemmerring published the results of his study on the bodily characteristics of Negroes and Europeans. He concluded that despite several differences, both belonged to the same species. The negroes had been brought from America as slaves by officers from Hessen-Darmstadt in the service of count Friedrich II (1720-1785) of Hessen-Kassel. Some of these slaves served as life guards to the count and worked as servants at the court.

Many of them died from lacking adaptation to the climate, infectious diseases, and from suicide because of their lonely and miserable position. Bodies of these dead slaves were given to Soemmerring for sectioning.

Soemmerring was horrified by the notion that Negroes may be an inferior animal species, closer to apes, and sets out in this book to establish that with some anatomical variations attributable to climate etc. we are the same species:

'We Europeans seem over long periods of time and in almost all regions of the world to have made a claim, never openly acknowledged and so for that reason turned into an almost intolerable insult to humanity, of our superior and widely-ranging rights as against Negroes. It is only too well known in what an unbrotherly way we treat these unfortunates, which we do with a coldness and ease of conscience so apparently universal that it seems tacitly to reveal that we think the Negro less perfect, less worthy of first place in the animal creation of our planet, in one word, of lesser being than are we white people.'

A married man in Mainz
During his last years in Mainz, Soemmerring’s life changed in important ways. On March 6, 1792 he married Margaretha Elisabeth Grunelius (1768-1802), who came from a prominent Frankfurt family. With this marriage he obtained status as a citizen of Frankfurt. During the first subsequent years the happy couple lived in Mainz. However, wartime conditions precluded his establishing a permanent residence there, and from 1795 he supervised his office from Frankfurt.

During the campaign in France in 1792, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), accompanying Karl August von Weimar (1757-1828), visited Soemmerring in Mainz. Goethe borrowed the elephant skull for study and made an engraving of it.

In 1795 Soemmerring received permission to practice in Frankfurt and left Mainz. One of the major achievements in which he was involved in Frankfurt, was the introduction of smallpox vaccine in cooperation with Georg Philipp Lehr (1756-1823).

It was here, with the cooperation with his friend, the artist Christian Koeck (1758-1818) – who had been taught by Soemmerring – he published his first masterwork on the senses, Abbildungen des Auges (1801). After his wife died in January 1802, he was sought by many universities and in March 1805 finally accepted nomination as a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in Munich – bayerischer Geheimer-Rath. He did not receive a position, however, as the building of the new institute of anatomy had been delayed due to the event of the war. At the same time Soemmerring had to do without the services of Koeck, who did not return to Munich from Russia until 1809.

His works
One of Soemmerring’s chief fields of research was neuroanatomy. His demonstrations of the crossing of the optical nerve fibres (1786) was followed by a publication on the brain and spinal cord (1788), the annotations to which contained a wealth of findings in comparative anatomy. Soemmerring no longer considered the spinal cord to be a “great nerve” but, rather, a part of the central nervous system. Further, he gave the hypophysis its current name, replacing the glandula pituitaria.

His handbook of human anatomy, Vom Baue des menschlichen Körpers (1791-1796), was based as far as possible on his own observations and was conceived as a supplement to Victor Albrecht von Haller’s (1708-1777) Primae lineae physiologiae; the work was still in use in expanded form a half century later.

Soemmerring translated and commented upon the works of others and did extensive reviewing for the scholarly journals published in Göttingen. In addition he often participated in prize competitions, but the material he submitted was mostly of a clinical nature – except for a paper on the structure of the lung (1808). Of Soemmerring’s communications published in the Denkschriften of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences the most important by far was one on electric telegraphs (1809-1810). He is also remembered for his opposition to the use of the guillotine.

The Man
Soemmerring was a man of many talents and interests. He was interested in fossils, he was an early member of the paleontological society, and active in the Senckenbergische Gesellschaft. As a member of the Physikalischer Verein he made observations on sunspots. He also took part in experiments with hot air balloons and in 1783 the first German balloon was off the ground.

His 50th doctoral jubilee on April 7, 1828, was celebrated with the presence of large numbers of people from near and far. This event occasioned the establishment of the Soemmering’s prize for the best achievements in physiology, to be granted every four years by the Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft in Frankfurt. It was first granted in 1837.

As a knight of the Order of the Civil Service of the Bavarian Crown – in 1808 – he was granted personal nobility, becoming Samuel Thomas von Soemmerring. Soemmerring died of old age on March 2, 1830, aged 75. In 1862 a street was named for him, and in 1897 the city of Frankfurt raised him a memorial on the city cemetery.

Samuel Thomas Soemmerring's and his electric telegraph
Soemmerring and his son Dr. med. Detmar Wilhelm Soemmerring (1793-1871) were among the founders of the Physikalischer Verein zu Frankfurt am Main in 1824. Already in his first period in Frankfurt, 1798-1805, Soemmerring began experimenting with electric currents. When Soemmerring was called to the Academy of Sciences in Munich in 1805, the building of the new anatomical institute was delayed and Soemmerring concerned himself more and more with physics.

On August 28, 1809 – Goethe's sixtieth birthday – Soemmerring presented an apparatus for transmitting information to the Münchener Akademie der Wissenschaften. This apparatus, an electric telegraph, had been commissioned by Margrave Leopold of Bavaria, an ally of Napoleon. In his telegraph, Soemmerring combined the battery developed by the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) with the newly discovered process for electrolysis of water.

Soemmerring's telegraph consists of thirty-five wires, one for each letter of the alphabet and one for each number. At the transmitting end of his system, arrangements are provided for passing currents from a "voltanic pile" through any one of the signal wires. At the receiving end each wire is connected to one of a series of thirty-five electrodes that are immersed in an acid bath. Completion of the circuit caused the evolution of bubbles of hydrogen at the electrode corresponds to a particular letter or a number.

Soemmerring learned the technique from Francisco Salvá (1751-1828) in Campillo, Spain. In 1804 Salvá used an electric telegraph, powered by Volta's battery, to send a message up to 1 kilometre. His system was based on the principles outlined by a man known only as "C. M." in a letter to the Scots Magazine for February 17, 1753. The device consisted in running a number of insulated wires between two places, one for each letter of the alphabet. The wires were to be charged with electricity from a machine one at a time, according to the letter it represented. At its far end the charged wire was to attract a disc of paper marked with the corresponding letter, and so the message would be spelt.

Salvá's system also used 26 wires. Every cable was connected to an electrode which was immersed in a glass tube filled with acid. The second electrodes were connected to the return cables. When Salva sent an electric current along a particular cable, it led to electrolysis at the other end: This released gas bubbles in the tube which showed which letter was meant. Soemmerring used stronger batteries and was thus able to transmit over a distance of 3.5 kilometres.

Occasioned by his Friend, Napoleon's life physician Dominique Jean Larrey (1766-1824), Soemmerring's invention was presented to the Institute de France in the presence of Emperor Napoleon. However, because of problems with the insulation of the cables, the telegraph never came into practical use.

In 1820, Soemmerring returned to Frankfurt where he, in 1828, presented an improved version in which two pulses were used for a letter, so that the alphabet could be covered by eight wires. He was in contact with Baron Pavel Schilling (1786-1837) in St. Petersburg. Schilling first built a copy of Soemmerring's telegraph, but later developed an electromagnetic telegraph which he presented to the Physikalischer Verein together with Dr. Wilhelm Soemmerring (the son) in 1835.

Shortly before this, Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1835) and Wilhelm Weber (1804-1891) in Göttingen had developed several telegraphs. In 1835 Schilling's telegraph was copied by Johann Valentin Albert for professor Georg Wilhelm Munke (1772-1847) in Heidelberg. Munke showed it to William Fothergill Cooke (1806-1879) and Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) in London.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872), while a professor of arts and design at New York University in 1835, used pulses of current to deflect an electromagnet, which moved a marker to produce written codes on a strip of paper - the invention of Morse Code. In 1843 Congress funded $30,000 to construct an experimental telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore, a distance of 40 miles.

A Soemmerring electrochemical telegraph built in 1811 is now in the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

    "ein höchst fähiger, zum Schauen, Bemerken,
    Denken, aufgeweckter lebendiger Geist."
    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on Soemmerring.

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