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Karl Friedrich Burdach

Born 1776
Died 1847

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German anatomist, physiologist, and embryologist, born June 12, 1776, Leipzig; died July 16, 1847, Königsberg.

Biography of Karl Friedrich Burdach

Karl Friedrich Burdach was a natural scientist typical of his peers and representative of a distinctive period in the intellectual life of Germany – the romantic age of the early nineteenth century. Guided by the tenets of Naturphilosophie, he made significant contributions, particularly to neuroanatomy. His penchant for extreme systematization, however, led him to publish in his many treatises much that later workers ridiculed as "unscientific". (Alan S. Kay.)

Karl Friedrich Burdach was the son and grandson of physicians. He was the only son of Daniel Christian Burdach (1739-1777), who practiced medicine in Leipzig and died when Karl Friedrich was only one year old.

He began his studies at the University of Leipzig in 1793 and received the doctor of philosophy degree five years later, in August 1798. He was still unqualified to practice, however, since at the time Leipzig did not offer any clinical training. He therefore proceeded to Vienna and the great clinician Johann Peter Frank (1745-1821).

At the end of his year at Vienna, Burdach began to search – unsuccessfully – for an academic position. He formally was conferred doctor of medicine at Leipzig in June 1799, and settled down to private practice and private lecturing while awaiting a university appointment. During this period Burdach, who was fascinated by Schelling's natural philosophy, turned to medical writing as a means of supplementing his income and making his name known.

In these early works, Burdach’s sympathies for the Romantic philosophy of nature were obvious. His first writings were mainly of historical contents and concerned natural phenomena.

«Those who have thoughts have always seen more than those who have merely wanted to see with their own eyes.»

In 1811 Burdach accepted an invitation to become professor of anatomy, physiology and forensic medicine at the University of Tartu, the Kaiserliche Universität zu Dorpat / Imperatorskij Derptskij Universitet. Tartu was founded in 1632 by King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden (1594-1632) as Dorpat. At this time Burdach took a special interest in the evolutionary history and the brain, and it was here in Dorpat he commenced his important brain research. His lectures revealed his inclination to natural philosophy, but were received with acclaim by his students.

Animated by the desire to return to Germany, in 1813-1814 Burdach applied for and received the recently vacated chair of anatomy and physiology in Königsberg. In addition to an increase in salary and the title of Hofrath, he obtained permission to create and head an anatomical institute. With Martin Heinrich Rathke (1793-1860) and Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876), a former student of his at Dorpat, he established the collection with Baer as prosector. The Königliche Anatomische Anstalt in Königsberg was formally opened on November 13, 1817. He remained director of this institute until 1827, later restricting himself to teaching and research activities. Baer, treated more as a colleague than assistant, dealt with zootomy, human anatomy, and foetal physiology. The research carried out at the institute was reported in annual Berichte.

Burdach concerned himself with examinations on the evolutionary history of the brain, particularly examining the 5th and the 7th brain nerve. The topics of his written works included the anatomy of the brain, pathology, dietetics, medication and other general medical themes.

Independently of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Burdach coined the term "morphology" in 1800. The word was first used by Goethe in his diary in 1796 in Jena. Burdach also coined the term "biology", in 1800. He suggested that this term be used to denote the study of human beings from a morphological, physiological, and psychological perspective. Among the first to use the word biology were also Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck (1744-1829) in 1802, and Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus (1776-1837) in his Biologie oder Philosophie der lebenden Natur, 1802. The first to use the word biology, however, was Michael Christoph Hanov (1695-1773).

His son, Ernst Burdach (1801-1876), was professor of anatomy at Königsberg.

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