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Matthias Jakob Schleiden

Born 1805-04-05
Died 1881-06-23

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German botanist, born April 5, 1804, Hamburg; died June 23, 1881, Frankfurt am Main.

Biography of Matthias Jakob Schleiden

Matthias Jakob Schleiden is recognised as the discoverer of the universality of cell structure in plants, and with Schwann shares the honour of originating the cell theory.

Schleiden was the son of a well-to-do municipal physician of Hamburg. He first studied law at the University of Hamburg from 1824 to 1827 and obtained a doctorate. He subsequently practiced law in Hamburg, but was unhappy with his career choice and choose to develop his hobby of botany into a full-time pursuit. In 1833 he began to study natural science at Göttingen and then transferred to Berlin. In choosing botany he was encouraged by his botanist uncle, Johann Horkel (1769-1849).

During these years the famous naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and the Scottish botanist Robert Brown (1773-1858) lived in Berlin. Schleiden worked in the laboratory of Johannes Peter Müller (1801-1858), where he met Theodor Schwann.

In this inspiring milieu, Schleiden worked intensively and produced noteworthy publications. He obtained his doctorate in 1839 at Jena and was then able to give free reign to his pedagocical fervor. He lectured and wrote both technical and popular scientific works on the widest range of topics.

Schleiden’s lectures drew anthusiastic, overflow audiences and his numerous articles appeared in highly respected journals.

He declined an offer from the University of Giessen in 1846, but in 1850 he accepted nomination as titular professor of botany at Jena. He also received many honors from learned societies. In spite of his success, Schleiden decided to leave Jena. His combative personality probably contributed to this decision; he was often involved in polemics with leading figures of the day.

He soon became a highly regarded popular lecturer and writer, and he was one of the most popular popularizers of the age.

Schleiden left Jena in 1862 and stayed for a short time in Dresden, before accepting an invitation  to become professor of anthropology at Dorpat. Even though he did not stay there long, the Russian government granted him a pension. He became a Privatgelehrter and thereafter frequently moved from one city to another.

In 1838 Schleiden published Beiträge zur Phytogenesis in Müller’s Archiv für Anatomie, Physiologie und wissenschaftliche Medicin. This article, which was immediately translated into French and English, fixed his name in the history of biology. In this article, Schleiden demonstrated the cell structure of plants and the imprtance of the nucleus in vegetabilic histology. He postulates that the different parts of the plant organism are composed of cells or derivatives of cells.

Tradition has it that the cell theory was conceived in a conversation between Schleiden and Schwann on the subject of phytogenesis.

Schleiden starts from Robert Brown (1773-1858)’s discovery of the cell nucleus (1832), which Schleiden called the cytoblast, and then indicates its role in the formation of cells.

From the start of his career, Schleiden showed a predilection for the microscope, and he contributed greatly to its introduction in biological research. He engaged in long and sometimes bitter disputes with Giovanni Batista Amici, one of the outstanding micrographers and opticians of the period. Schleiden is thought to have paid an active role in the establishment of the Zeiss optical works in Jena.

A number of Schleiden’s articles contain virulent criticism of the botanists of the first half of the nineteenth century, many of whom still upheld the ideas of nature philosophy, against which his textbook was a frontal attack. More important, however, it introduced new pedagogical standard that were to dominate the teaching of botany for years. Beginning with the second edition, the work bore the title Botanik als inductive Wissenschaft. From the time of its founding in 1857, Schleiden was a frequient contributor ot Westermanns Monatshefte, a periodical that maintained high literary and scientific standards.

Schleiden’s last publications were scholarly studies on the fate of the Jews in the Middle Ages, on their martyrdom, and on their importance in transmitting knowledge to the Occident. These works, which were reprinted and translated, stimulated much interest; they also testify to the liberality of Schleiden’s thinking in a period that witnessed the first anti-Semitic campaigns in the universities of Wilhelmine Germany.

Schleiden was one of the first German biologists to accept Charles Darwin 's theory of evolution.

”As a popularizer he was  a model, as a scientist an initiator.”
L. Errera, One of his early biographers.


Marc Klein (1905-1975):
Schleiden, Mathias Jakob
. In Charles Coulston Gillispie, editor in chief: Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York, 1970. Volume 12: 173.

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