Gabriel Gustav Valentin
Biography of Gabriel Gustav Valentin
Gabriel Gustav Valentin is reckoned as Jan Evangelista Purkyně’s most famous and important student, but he early cut his ties to his teacher and worked on problems of his own choice.
Valentin was the only child og Abraham Valentin, a silverware merchant and assistant rabbi in Breslau, and Caroline Bloch. As a student at the Maria Magdalena Gymnasium he was equally interested in languages and sciences.
In 1828, aged eighteen, Valentin began to study medicine at the University of Breslau, where his most influential teachers were the botanist Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck (1776-1858) and the physiologist Jan Evangelista Purkyně (1787-1869). After four years, in 1832 he received his medical degree with a dissertation on the formation of muscle tissue, and he passed the state examination at Berlin in 1833. His father’s death obliged Valentin to begin practicing medicine immediately in order to earn a living. That year he settled in practice in Breslau.
b>A man of many talents and interests
Valentin had a gift for observation and an outstanding memory. A notable additional asset was his mathematical ability, which was of particular service to him in handling physiological problems. Although his initial research centered on the formation of plant and animal tissue, he was also interested in the processes of intracellular movement in plants; and in his study of animals he was particularly concerned with embryology. He experimentally produced double malformations in chick embryos, on which he reported to the Versammlung Deutscher Naturforscher und Aerzte, meeting at Breslau in 1833. The following year, Valentin undertook a study of the structure of nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord, in particular measuring their thickness. This research, however, was hampered by a lack of sufficiently developed techniques.
Working with Purkyně
In the spring of 1834, while conducting research designed to detect eggs in vertebrates, he discovered the ciliated epithelium in the oviduct of rabbits; and with Purkyne he investigated its distribution in various classes of vertebrates. They also demonstrated the influence of chemical substances on the ciliary movement and ascertained that the movement is independent of the nervous system.
The importance of this research was recognized in Valentin’s election to membership of the Leopoldinisch-Karolinische Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher. He now also worked on a prize question in experimental physiology posed by the French Academy of Sciences in 1833: to determine whether the way in which animal tissues develop can be compared with that of plant tissues. In February 1835 Valentin submitted his answer to the Academy under the title Histiogenica comparata. This Latin manuscript runs to more than 1,000 quarto pages and includes many illustrations by the author.
In the summer of 1835 tension developed between Valentin and Purkyně over their use of the same microscope in Purkyne’s house. Valentin thereupon sought to obtain an independent post. He received an offer from Dorpat; but here, and in Prussia, his Jewish faith proved to be a handicap. His situation soon improved however; for in December 1835 the jury of the French Academy of Sciences awarded him the Grand Prix des Sciences Physiques for his histology manuscript. The prize, worth 3,000 gold francs, enabled Valentin to buy a large microscope and to travel to Berlin to see Johannes Müller (1801-1858). More important, however, he was recognized as an outstanding microscopist.
Professor in Bern
In 1836 Valentin accepted a professorship of physiology and zootomy from the University of Bern, after making sure that he would not be required to abandon his religion. He had by then turned down invitations for the same position at the universities of Dorpat and Lüttich. Thus Valentin, aged twenty-six, became the first Jewish professor at a German-language university. He now concentrated his efforts exclusively in scientific studies. He worked in Bern for 45 years.
While travelling to Bern, Valentin had made two lifelong friends during a stop at Frankfurt: Gabriel Riesser (1806-1863), a pioneer in the struggle for Jewish emancipation, and the Göttingen mathematician Moritz Abraham Stern (1807-1894). In 1837 he went to France. Through the recommendation of Alexander Humboldt (1769-1859), he met Marie Jean Pierre Flourens (1794-1867), François Magendie (1783-1855), and Gilbert Breschet (1784-1845). In 1839 he travelled to Nice, where his most important contacts were with Rudolf Wagner (1805-1864). Valentin himself always welcomed visitors, among them were Friedrich Gustav Jacob Henle (1809-1885) of Zürich and Adolph Hannover (1814-1894) of Copenhagen.
At Bern, Valentin continued to publish a periodical that he had founded at Breslau, Repertorium für Anatomie und Physiologie, which appeared from 1836 to 1843. The sole contributor, he reported the results of his own studies and surveyed the latest physiological literature. For example, from 1836 he used the term “cell” in describing many types of epithelium.
In the new anatomical institute in Bern, Valentin had the use of a small but adequately equipped laboratory where he pursued his microscopic examination of the structure of nerve tissue with great enthusiasm. Since he clung to his notion of terminal loops of nerves and refused to recognize the occurrence of gray (marrowless) nerve fibers, he became involved in controversies with Johannes Müller (1801-1858) and Robert Remak (1815-1865), as well as with Friedrich Heinrich Bidder (1810-1894) and Alfred Wilhelm Volkmann (1801-1877).
Valentin was painstaking ans conscientious, but he was more critical of the work of others than of his own. The letters that suvive give conflicting images of his personality. He joined the Freemasons at an early date, and he was generous and – sometimes, at least – sociable. Occasionally he was boisterous or ironic; yet he himself was very sensitive, easily offended, sometimes mistrustful, and often dissatisfied. He was self-assertive in dealing with his colleagues and co-workers, and thus his relations with them were very strained at times.
Valentin served several times as dean of the medical faculty; but despite more than forty years of taching at Bern, he was never elected rector of the university.
In 1841 Valentin married his cousin Henriette Samosch; they had three children. Over the years the couple became increasingly estranged, and the children had to be sent out to board because of domestic difficulties.
In January 1863 Valentin’s wife died after a long illness. At about the same time, the medical faculty sought to put an end to the union of the chairs of anatomy and physiology that he had imposed. Valentin, who was dean at the time, sought to maintain the staus quo by appealing to higher authorities, and he did not shrink from threats. The government, however, confined his responsibilities to physiology and named Christoph Theodor Aeby (1835-1885) professor of anatomy. When the medical faculty declared in December that Valentin still had its support as dean, he allowed himself to be mollified and remained in office.
The respect that Valentin enjoyed in Bern is evident in his becoming the first Jew to be granted citizenship by that city.
Works of later years
Until 1881, when a heart attack rendered him incapable of working, Valentin continued his scientific research, devoting these years primarily to polarization and spectroscopic studies.
His extensive activity brought Valentin many honours. In addition to being a member of the Leopoldinisch-Karolinische Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher, he was a foreign corresponding member of the Académie Royal de Médecine de Belgique, of which he became honorary member in 1862. He was also a corresponding member of the Académie de Médecine of Paris; associate member of the Académie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique; and honorary member of the medical societies of Stockholm, Erlangen, Hamburg, Budapest, Turin, Heidelberg, and Copenhagen, and of several scientific societies. The philosophy faculty of Bern awarded him an honorary doctorate, and he was presented with Festschriften on his jubilee dates.
His son Adolf Valentin (1845-1911) became professor of oto-laryngology at the University of Bern.
Valentin wrote more than two hundred papers and articles, as well as a number of books, some of which are quite long. From 1836 to 1843 he published the Repertorium für Anatomie und Phsyiologie.