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Victor Albrecht von Haller

Born 1708
Died 1777

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Swiss biologist, physiologist and writer, born October 16, 1708, Bern; died December 12, 1777, Bern.

Biography of Victor Albrecht von Haller

Albrecht von Haller was one of the intellectual giants of the eighteenth century, maybe the latest of the universally learned men of all times. His accomplishments in medicine, surgery, anatomy, physiology, botany, literature, scientific bibliography, and public service were simply enormous, and he achieved distinction in all of them - as well as in poetry. He is considered the father of scientific physiology.

Any one of his major works, or his exhaustive bibliographies in twenty volumes, would have been enough to occupy the lifetime of a lesser man, but Haller carried on a vast correspondence with hundreds of scientists, wrote thousands of reports, composed poetry which was a landmark in the development of German literature, wrote on the history of medicine, and was active in public affairs. It is said of him that he wrote sitting and standing, while riding and walking, as well as at tea with the ladies and during the meetings of the Council of Bern - the Berner Rat.

Haller was born to a family that for generations had fostered distinguished clergymen and secular personalities. In accordance with this tradition, his education was directed towards intellectual pursuits. The family had been established in Bern since 1550.

He was the fifth and last child of Niklaus Emanuel Haller (1672-1721), a jurist in the service of the Republic of Bern, and Anna Maria Engel. His mother died when he was young, and he was raised by his stepmother, Salome Neuhaus. The family was neither rich nor well-connected and had little political influence. Many of its members were reputed to be nervous, secretive and eccentric.

Haller received his earliest education from a former pastor. Prevented by long-continued ill-health from taking part in boyish sports, he had the more opportunity for the development of his precocious mind. At the age of four, it is said, he used to read and expound the Bible to his father’s servants; before he was ten he had sketched a Chaldee grammar, prepared a Greek and a Hebrew vocabulary. Before he was fourteen, his writings included tragedies and an epic poem on the origin of Switzerland.

After his father’s death, he attended public school in Bern for year and a half. From 1722 to 1723 Haller lived in Biel in the house of his step uncle Johann Rudolf Neuhaus (1701-1770), a physician who furthered his studies. Among other subjects, Neuhaus tried to instruct Haller in Cartesian philosophy, but Haller rejected it. At this time, however, he began to write poetry and decided to become a physician. We do not know who influenced him the most to make this decision, but it is known that it was Samuel Herzog, physician to the city of Basel, who recommended him to study in Tübingen.

Travelling student in the Alps
In January 1724, still only fifteen years of age, Haller began the study of medicine in Tübingen where he learned the fundamentals of botany and anatomy from Johann Georg Duvernoy (1691-1759). In April 1725 he moved on to Leiden to continue his training under Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738), Europe's most famous teacher at the time. While there he also studied anatomy and surgery with Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697-1770). On May 23, 1727, at the age of eighteen, he graduated doctor of medicine - with a thesis proving that what had been called a salivary duct by Georg Daniel Coschwitz (1679-1729) was in reality a blood vessel. In Leiden Haller bacame a friend of Johann Gessner (1709-1790) from Zürich.

In 1727-1728 Haller made an academic tour of London, Oxford, Paris, Strasbourg and Basel. In London he made the acquaintance of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753 – the founder of British Museum, William Cheselden (1688-1752). John Pringle (1707-1782) – "the father of military medicine", James Douglas (1702-1768), and other scientific men.

In Paris he studied under the celebrated surgeon Henri-François Le Dran (1685-1770) and the famous Danish-born anatomist Jacob Benignus Winsløw (1669-1769). In Paris he also met Gessner again and during the winter 1727/1728 they spent much time together studying anatomy and surgery. Due to problems caused by the secret dissection of a corpse, Haller continued to Basel where he studied advanced mathematics with Johann Bernoulli (1667-1748) in the spring and summer of 1728.

It was during his stay there also that his interest in botany was awakened. He spent the months of July and August making an alpine journey to further his knowledge of botany, visiting several of the cantons of Switzerland as well as Savoy and Baden.

At the same time he began the botanical collection that was to form the basis for his massive work on the Swiss flora. His Alpine experience resulted in his most famous literary work, Die Alpen, which was finished in March 1729 and appeared in the first edition of his Gedichte in 1732. This poem of 490 hexameters is historically important as one of the earliest signs of the awakening appreciation of the mountains (hitherto generally regarded as horrible monstrosities), though it is chiefly designed to contrast the simple and idyllic life of the inhabitants of the Alps with the corrupt and decadent existence of the dwellers in the plains. The poem's glorification of the mountains helped bring a sense of awareness of natural wonders to German poetry.

Doctor in Bern – professor in Göttingen
His travels ended in Bern, which he left after only a few weeks in response to an invitation to lecture on anatomy at Basel during the winter of 1728-1729. In this he represented Professor Johann Rudolph Mieg (1694-1733) who had fallen ill.

In 1729 he returned to Bern to practice medicine. There he continued his anatomical studies, enlarged his herbarium, and gave private instruction, but he was unable to obtain a suitable appointment, his applications for the position of city physician or professor of eloquence. However, in 1635 he opened the new anatomical theatre in Bern, built on his initiative. The same year he received the position of city librarian.

Finally, in 1736, upon his own application, he was chosen professor of anatomy, surgery, and medicine at the new University of Göttingen. To a large degree this appointment was based upon recognition of his botanical studies having brought the science of botany a major leap forward. He was soon considered the most important personality at the university. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1743 and was ennobled in 1749, becoming von Haller.

The years in Göttingen
Haller's most fruitful period was the student years in Leyden and the years in Göttingen, where he established physiology as a medical speciality. He established an anatomical theatre which is considered the world's oldest physiological institute. He also founded an academy for drawing and a maternity clinic, he established a botanical garden and founded the Scientific Society of which he was president until his death. His most important contribution was that he made the experiment the foundation for the natural sciences.

In Göttingen he founded a society for natural sciences, the Societas Regia scientiarium Gottingensis = Königliche Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen = Royal Society for Sciences in Göttingen.

Haller also edited the monthly journal, the Gôtttingische gelehrte Anzeiger, to which he is said to have contributed twelve thousand articles relating to almost every branch of human knowledge.

In Göttingen Haller undertook comprehensive biological experiments which were to make his encyclopaedic work Elementa Physiologiae Corporis Humani a milestone in medical history. Because of his impressive contributions at the newly established university, the scientific world was shocked when he renounced his chair in order to return to Bern. There, from 1653 until his death, he continued his research, practised medicine and completed an enormous number of written works. His Eementa was vital in establishing physiology as an independent branch of science. He also warmly interested himself in most of the religious questions, and the erection of the Reformed church in Göttingen was mainly due to his unwearied energy.

Home to Bern
In 1745, while still at Göttingen, Haller was elected a member of the cantonal council of Bern - Der grosse Rat. Encouraged in his hope of having a political career, he visited Bern in the spring of 1753. He resigned his post at Göttingen and remained in Bern after having been selected for the office of Rathausammann, a relatively modest position which was considered a springboard for higher offices. For four years the family lived in the government flat in the town hall.

From 1758 to 1764 Haller lived at Saleni in Rhônetal as director of the Bern saltworks. During the years 1762 to 1763 he also held office as deputy governor – Landvogt – of Aigle. He then returned to Bern where he remained there until his death, despite tempting invitations from the universities of Göttingen and Berlin. When King Georg II of Hannover invited him to return to Göttingen, the city of Bern in an extraordinary appointment made him "Assessor perpetuus" of the sanitary council with an annual fee of 400 kronen. This was what Haller needed to turn down the honourable invitation and remain in Bern.

He combined his scientific and literary work with public service and was active both in political and administrative affairs, doing useful work for the school system, for orphans, and as a member of the sanitary council. Seven times he ran for election to the city council (Der kleine Rat), but in vain. In addition he codified the common law of the Aigle district and was later president of the Bern Oekonomische Gesellschaft.

The man
Haller married three times; his wives were Marianne Wyss (dead 1736), Elisabeth Bucher (dead 1741), and Amalia Teichmeyer. Amalia was the daughter of Hermann Friedrich Teichmeyer (1685-1746), professor of medicine, experimental physics, and botany at the University of Jena, as well as a pioneer in forensic medicine.

Eight children survived to adulthood; two sons and a daughter from his first marriage, and two sons and three daughters from his third. A devoted Zwinglian, he was often tormented by doubts about the profundity of his own belief after the death of his first wife.

Until his thirtieth year Haller suffered constantly from headache; ha was later to be plagued by gout, eye pain, dizziness, stomach distress, and oedema, inflammation of the bladder, a kidney pelvis, and despondency. He fought sleeplessness (probably caused by drinking inordinate amounts of tea) with opium, to which he became addicted - he later published a study of the illness. That he was in earlier times an active mountaineer may be seen from his alpine collecting tips; it was also during this period that he wrote the poetry. In his old age his weight – 108 kg – hindered his taking even easy mountain strolls.

Haller’s contemporaries found his character full of conflicting elements. He could be amiable and entertaining, but trivial matters caused him to lose his temper and become irritable and capricious. In both politics and religion Haller was intolerant and considered every expression of an opposing opinion a personal affront. Efficiency in his work was based on a sense of duty and personal ambition. Most of his co-workers found him petty and antisocial; he himself frequently bemoaned his shortcomings but was unsuccessful in overcoming them.

A list of Haller’s honours and memberships in scientific societies may be found in the catalogue of the Haller Exhibition, held at Bern in 1877.

His work
As an anatomist Haller was especially influenced by Albinus and Jacques Benigne Winsløw; Haller himself considered anatomy and physiology a unit, calling physiology «anatomia animata».

Haller was the first to recognize the mechanism of respiration and the autonomous function of the heart; he discovered that bile helps to digest fats, and he wrote original descriptions of embryonic development. He also summarized anatomical studies of the genital organs, the brain, and the cardiovascular system.

Haller successfully employed injection techniques to investigate the distribution of blood vessels in the human body. In preparing his Icones anatomicae (1743) he used a decimalized system to number his observations in all cadavers examined. He obtained greater knowledge of the frequency of different variants and used the principle of greatest frequency as the anatomical norm.

Haller’s investigations of monsters and deformities led him to observations from which he was later able to make significant generalizations. Although he studied many birth defects with great thoroughness, one example will serve to illustrate the nature of his concerns.

Haller chose to study a pair of premature twins joined at the chest and upper abdomen. The infants shared the organs of this region - the liver, spleen, diaphragm, and heart - but possessed all other organs individually. Most important, each had a separate nervous system and was therefore theoretically capable of expressing his own will; since the single heart received blood from both bodies and redistributed it, thoroughly mixed, to each, Haller considered this evidence that the anima did not reside in the blood, as had been thought previously.

Haller also drew upon the heart shared by both infants to redefine the entire concept of monstrosity. Since the heart was considered to be the first organ formed, it was apparent that the twins represented one body, unified from its beginning, rather than the conjunction of two formerly separated bodied. Therefore, this twinning was not a deformity but perhaps a new type of living creature and a proof of the manner in which divine wisdom can realize new human forms that are complete in their own ways. He extended his studies of malformations to the question of whether true hermaphrodites could exist among humans (concluding that most instances of disturbed development of the external genitalia were simply occurrences of split urethra in male individuals).

The regulation of the heart
Haller turned to mechanics to define the role of the motion of the blood in the production of heat. He attributed heat to the friction produced by the blood corpuscles rubbing against each other and against the walls of the blood vessels. This friction seemed to Haller to be so strong that his notion of it led him to deny the lentiform blood cells reported - correctly - by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723); he thought blood cells subjected to such forces would be rounded off into spheres.

As early as 1729 he devoted his first independent anatomical researches to the structure of the human diaphragm. In 1733 he published his initial, imperfect work on this subject. By 1744, however, he had made repeated observations of the diaphragm and was able to supply the first accurate picture of it. He has also meanwhile been conducting experiments on animals to clarify its functions.

The most important aspects of Haller’s research were his findings of sensibility and irritability. Although the concept of irritability may be found in earlier works of Francis Glisson (1597-1677) and Giorgio Baglivi (1668-1707), Haller was responsible for its acceptance and wide dissemination. He came to study it through his work on the action of the heart. As early as 1740, in his notes to Boerhaave’s lectures, Haller had assumed that the cause of cardiac activity - still unknown, must lie within the structure of the heart itself, and he gradually came to attribute such activity to muscle irritability. Haller’s complete scientific delineation of nerve and muscle action laid the foundation for the advent of modern neurology.

Haller’s observations on the sensibility of parts of the body were derived from 567 experiments, of which Haller himself performed 190. His experimental method was simple; having determined which part of the animal he wished to examine, he stimulated that part in any of a number of ways (ranging from simply blowing on it to applying heat or chemical or inflicting mechanical injury, as by cutting or tearing). If the animal responded by showing signs of pain or discomfort, he classified the part in question as sensitive.

The origin
Haller also made studies of embryological development. He studied the human gonads and then took up the chief generative problem of his time: the origin of the new individual. Controversies abounded on many sides - some investigators held the male parent to be the more important in creating the embryo, and others championed the female; the question of spontaneous generation was undecided, and ovists and animalculists argued for completely opposing views. A fundamental opposition also existed between evolutionists (preformationists), who based their theories on the development of an organism already formed in the egg or the sperm, and epigenicists, who asserted the new formation of all parts of the embryo body. Haller converted to evolutionism, and his authoritative adherence to this theory presented an obstacle to the further development of embryology for some time afterward.

Haller’s most important finding in embryology again shows his statistical bias; he was able to devise a numerical method to demonstrate the rate of growth of the foetal body and its parts. By this quantitative determination he showed that foetal growth is relatively rapid in its early stages but that the tempo gradually decreases. These observations were entirely new and remain fundamentally correct. Their significance seems to have eluded Haller, however, since he does not mention them in a list of his own original anatomical and physiological discoveries.

Flower power
Despite his considerable effort in anatomy and physiology, Haller did not neglect the botanical observations that had likewise occupied him from his early years in Basel. Characteristically, he set himself to create a complete, encyclopaedic science of Swiss flora. He thus addressed himself to the most important botanical problem of the time – a comprehensive nomenclature.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Haller rejected the idea of the constancy of species; he would accept a plant species as such only after he had compared a large number of typical examples in order to establish the degree of their potential variability. To the same end he also studied cultivated plants and controlled stages of development. Nonetheless, he had difficulty in placing related species within families, and he remained entangled in verbose descriptive names.

Nor did Haller neglect his herbarium, which was enriched by specimens sent by numerous correspondents. Preserved in the Muséum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, this Swiss collection continues to aid science. Other of Haller’s plant collections have been maintained in Göttingen, where they have been recently examined and rearranged.

The bibliographer
Toward the end of his life, Haller devoted much of his time to the cataloguing of scientific literature. His Medicinae Practicae lists 52.000 publications on anatomy, botany, surgery, and medicine. In his study on Swiss vegetation he developed a system of botanical classification considered more logical than that of his Swedish colleague Carolus Linnaeus, known as the father of modern taxonomy,

Throughout his scientific career, Haller thoroughly studied everything that had been published on any given subject; it is therefore natural that he turned his systematizing instincts toward bibliography. His first such work was his annotation of his lecture transcripts of Boerhaave’s Institutiones medicae (1739). Although used as a kind of textbook of physiology, it soon became outdated and Haller therefore wrote his Primae lineae physiologiae (1747), which enjoyed great popularity for many years. His completion of Boerhaave’s Methodus studii medici (1751) contains many additions of a purely biographical nature - a 100-page listing of works on physics, a meagre fifteen pages of works on chemistry, ninety-five pages of references on botany and chemistry, and more than 300 pages of literature on anatomy and physiology. Haller here maintained the arrangement used by Boerhaave but was characteristically unsatisfied with it.

Haller planned a vast, comprehensive Bibliotheca medica. The completed parts list more than 50.000 titles; those marked with a small start were contained in Haller’s own library, which is thus easily reconstituted. The works also comprise a number of brief biographical notes on the authors listed and cite historically interesting relationships between authors and between works. That Haller occasionally referred to the unified work as his Historia indicates the point of view from which he planned to compose it.

Haller compiled four great bibliographies dealing respectively with botany, anatomy, surgery, and medicine. They formed the most complete reference work of the time, consisting of a classified analysis of over 52.000 publications of all countries.

The poet
Haller won a great reputation as a poet with Versuch schweizerischer Gedichte (1752), first published anonymously in his brother's publishing house. This contains his most famous poem, De Alpen, written in 1729. During his later years he wrote three philosophical romances - Usong (1771), Alfred (1773), and Fabius and Cato (1774) - in which he drew upon his political experiences and expounded his ideas of government. He also wrote on theology; in particular he defended Christianity and politicized against atheism.

Haller is said to have written more than 1300 scientific papers.

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