Biography of Rudolf Wagner
Rudolf Wagner was the son of Lorenz Heinrich Wagner, a Bavarian court councillor and Gymnasium professor. He attended the Gymnasiums in Bayreuth and Augsburg before beginning his medical education at the University of Erlangen at Easter time in 1822. Two years later he transferred to the University of Würzburg, from which he graduated M.D. in 1826. At Erlangen he was in particular influenced by Johann Lukas Schönlein (1793-1864) in medicine and Karl Friedrich Heusinger (1792-1883) in comparative anatomy. His graduation thesis was on the Progress of the working classes. Aided by a public stipend, he spent a year or more studying in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where he received an excellent grounding in comparative anatomy under the friendly eye of Baron Cuvier (1769-1832).
A scientist abroad"
Following this, for the purpose of study he visited the Mediterranean and Normandy coast to study lower animals in particular. In 1828 he studied geology in Cagliari on Sardinia and stayed for some time in Munich. His frequent journeys to the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, and the North Sea had given him abundant materials for research on invertebrate anatomy and physiology, which he communicated first to the Munich academy of sciences, and republished in his Beiträge zur vergleichenden Physiologie des Blutes (Leipzig, 1832-1833).
Wagner then set up in medical practice at Augsburg, whither his father had been transferred; but in a few months he found an opening for an academic career, on being appointed prosector at Erlangen. He was habilitated as a Privatdozent in 1829 and became extraordinary professor of comparative anatomy and zoology in 1832. In 1840 he accepted an appointment at Göttingen, where he succeeded Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) as professor of physiology, comparative anatomy, and zoology. He remained in this position for the rest of his life. He also served as curator of Blumenbach’s craniological collection and lectured on anthropology. At the Hanoverian university he remained till his death, being much occupied with administrative work as pro-rector for a number of years, and for nearly the whole of his residence troubled by ill-health (phthisis).
The mammalian ovum
Wagner conducted research in a number of areas. His most important work concerned mammalian ova and sperm. Jan Evangelista Purkyně (1787-1869) had already, in 1825, discovered the nucleus in the avian egg, while Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876) had discovered the mammalian ovum (1827), and Jean-Jacques Marie Cyprien Victor Coste (1807-1873) had identified its nucleus (1834).
It remained for Wagner to discover (1835) an important formation in the ovum of several species of mammals, which he called the macula germinativa – later known as the nucleolus.
In his physiological work, Wagner emphasized the value of microscopic observation. As a leading representative of the histophysiological trend, he considered the microscope to be an essential means of elucidating physiological function, and tended to be somewhat critical of experimentation and pure mensuration. “What the scales are for the chemist, the telescope of the astronomer, so the microscope is for the physiologist,” he wrote.
With Félix Dujardin (1801-1860), Wagner was one of the first to use the achromatic microscope to examine sperm; in 1837 he published highly accurate illustrations of spermatozoa, showing the structures that he had actually seen, which he called “seminal threads.” His accomplishment was the more noteworthy in that at the same time a number of other biologists believed that spermatozoa were parasitic animals, and even attempted to identify a visceral system in them.
In a series of other microscopical researches, Wagner demonstrated, in 1833, that red blood corpuscles have no nuclei. He made significant contributions to the study of the retina and the choroidea of the eye (1835) and of the electric organ of the torpedo fish (1847), as well as sharing in George Meissner’s discovery of the tactile corpuscles of the skin (1852). In 1853 and 1854, Wagner also conducted investigations of the nervous system, by which he was able to show the relation between the peripheral nerve fibres and the ganglion cells of the brain.
In 1846 he showed that the Bell law of spinal nerve roots applied to fish: The anterior spinal nerve roots contain only motor fibres and posterior roots only sensory fibres.
In his teaching, Wagner was a captivating lecturer, who emphasized practical instruction. He had an ability to stimulate and help young scientists, and a number of his collaborators, including R. Leuckart, Theodor Billroth (1829-1894), Georg Meissner (1829-1905), and Julius Vogel, became prominent in a variety of specialities. He was also able to further his views through the foundation of the Göttingen Physiological Institute.
In addition to his work in anatomy and physiology, Wagner was strongly interested in philosophical problems concerning mind and body, science and society, and morality and materialism.
Not a materialist
These interests deepened after he suffered a severe pulmonary haemorrhage in 1845, and began to confine his work to the study of the nervous system and to anthropology. His philosophical views were first published in 1851; highly conservative, they proved a source of annoyance to younger scientists. In 1853 Wagner addressed a meeting of German scientists and physicians at Göttingen, and his speech initiated an unpleasant controversy about materialism, in which his chief opponent, Carl Vogt (1817-1895), published a witty and sarcastic critique of Wagner’s views on the creation of man and the nature of his soul. The discussion soon thereafter degenerated into personal insult from both sides, and Wagner thereafter confined his attention to more strictly scientific matters.
Anthropologist and brain researcher
He was also active in the field of anthropology, and with von Baer in 1861 organised the first congress of anthropology, of which the main theme was methods for the measurement of the human body.
Wagner was one of very close friends of the mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss during the years 1854 and 1855, shortly before Gauss died. Gauss gave Wagner permission to use his brain for scientific purposes. Thus begun the phenomena of ‘brain clubs’, with distinguished scientists bequeathing their brains for research.
Because was one of the greatest mathematicians of all times, and a universal genius comparable to Einstein, the learned world of the time took a great interest in his brain. The study of elite brains was in vogue, and Wagner was one of its leading proponents. He investigated the brain and found that although Gauss was an intellectual heavyweight, his brain was not big. A cast of the inside of the skull was measured at 18,5 cm long, 14,1 cm broad and 12,5 cm high. The brain weighed 1492 grams.
My forefather - which ape?
The University of Göttingen participated in the debate about the relationship between man and ape. In the early nineteenth century Professor Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, in opposition to the teaching of Carl von Linné, wanted to give man a special place in the line of primates. Lorenz Oken (1779-1851), parallel with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, discovered the intermaxillary bone, an indication of the close relationship between man and ape. Wagner vehemently refuted the theory that different human races descended from different apes.
In 1860 he gave over the physiological part of his teaching to a new chair, retaining the zoological, with which his career had begun. While at Frankfurt, on his way to examine the Neanderthal skull at Bonn, he was struck with paralysis, and died at Göttingen a few months later on May 13, 1864.
Rudolf Wagner was the father of the economist Adolph Wagner (1835-1917) and the geographer Hermann Wagner (1840-1929) and grandfather of the physicist Hans Bender (1870-1953). His brother Moritz Wagner (1813-1887) was a traveller, geographer and natural scientist.