Georg Meissner

Born 1829
Died 1905

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German histologist, physiologist and anatomist, born November 29, 1829, Hannover; died March 30, 1905, Göttingen.

Biography of Georg Meissner

Georg Meissner was the son of the senior law-court official Adolf Meissner in Hannover. As a student he displayed only average talents and it was only after having graduated from high-school – die Abitur – he decided to study medicine. He left school in the spring of 1849 and began the study of medicine at Göttingen in the summer of that year. At the university he had a fatherly friend and patron in Rudolf Wagner (1806-1864) who was professor of physiology, comparative anatomy, and zoology. While still a student Meissner took an active part in Wagner’s investigations in anatomy and, especially, in microscopy.

Torpedoes at Trieste
At Göttingen Meissner became a lifelong friend of Theodor Billroth (1829-1894). The two were united by their great love for music and by their interest in microscopic anatomy. In the autumn of 1851 Meissner and Billroth accompanied Wagner on a research expedition to Trieste, in order to investigate the origins and endings of the nerves in the torpedo fish. Meissner provided the drawings, which were printed by Wagner in hiss Icones physiologicae. The expedition was also concerned with analyzing the electrical organ of the torpedo. At Trieste, Meissner became acquainted with Johannes Müller (1801-1858) whom he esteemed highly. It was also in 1851 that Meissner conducted intensive comparative microscopic investigations on the cells and fibres of the nervus acusticus.

Tactile corpuscles – whodunit?
In 1852, Meissner studied the tactile corpuscles of the skin which today bear his name and conceived that pressure changes triggered neural responses. The results were first published under the names of Wagner and Meissner; but in Meissner’s doctoral thesis the same results were again published, this time under his name alone, as Beiträge zur Anatomie und Physiologie der Haut (Leipzig, 1853), and a fierce controversy over priority ensued between Wagner and Meissner.

Meissner became doctor of medicine in Göttingen in 1852 and, after finishing his studies in the spring of 1853, he went to Berlin to attend the lectures of Johannes Müller and Johann Lukas Schönlein (1793-1864). In April 1853 he left for Munich to attend the lectures of Ernst von Siebold (1804-1885), Emil Harless (1820-1862), and Justus von Liebig (1803-1873). In August there he received a letter from Rudolf Wagner, who claimed the discovery of the tactile cells for his own and demanded a public resolution of the matter. Meissner rejected this proposal politely but firmly, and bad feelings between teacher and pupils persisted until 1859.

Tenure, marriage, and reconciliation
In 1855, aged twenty-six, Meissner was appointed full professor of anatomy and physiology at the University of Basel. In 1857 he was called to the University of Freiburg im Breisgau as professor of physiology, zoology, and histology. At Freiburg he married the daughter of the mineralogist and poet Franz Ritter von Kobell; (1803-1882); they had two sons.

In 1859 Wagner and Meissner were reconciled. Wagner, who until then had held the joint chair of physiology, comparative anatomy, and zoology, turned over his duties in physiology to Meissner, who thus became the first occupant of the separate chair of physiology at Göttingen. He took office after Easter of 1860 and held the chair until 1901, when he retired because of asthma. He spent the rest of his life in Göttingen.

Meissner was not very sociable. His lectures on physiology, which were illustrated by many experiments, were always well prepared and vivid. Here his talent for drawing, especially for microscopic drawings, served him well

The scientist
Meissner achieved considerable fame for his development of a technique for preserving whole organs without the use of disinfectants. This involved the employment of aseptic surgery to remove the particular organ and the use of heat sterilisation of the containers and enabled him to preserve these organs without putrefaction for years. This work was reported by a colleague, Anton Julius Friedrich Rosenbach) 1842-1923) although he himself had presented his findings at a number of scientific meetings.

After 1858, Meissner wrote largely on physiological-chemical problems. He was mainly concerned with the nature and the breakdown of proteins into smaller protein components in the digestive system. The results of his investigations, undertaken alone as well as with his collaborators, were published in Zeitschrift für rationale Medicin, edited by his friend, the famous anatomist Jakob Henle (1809-1885). However, Meissner’s experiemnts on protein failed to meet with recognition.

In 1861 Meissner constructed a new electrometer, a mirror galvanometer. The ensuing electrophysiological investigations led him to propose a new theory concerning the generation of electric potentialss through the deformation of biologicial tissues. This suggestion provoked a devastating critique in 1867 by the famous Berlin physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896), the Nestor of electrophysiology. He was so offended that after 1869 he published nothing more under his own name.

Meissner retired as head of the physiological institute in 1900, renounced his academic activity in 1902, and died in 1905. His son, Paul Meissner, born 1868, was a dermatologist. Besides medical works he wrote popular medicine and science, as well as short stories.

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