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Joseph Hyrtl

Born 1810-12-10
Died 1894-06-14

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Austrian anatomist, born December 7, 1810, Eisenstadt, Hungary; died July 14, 1894, Perchtoldsdorf.

Biography of Joseph Hyrtl

In the middle and later parts of the nineteenth century anatomy became the most important of the basic sciences on which medicine drew, and Hyrtl was one of the anatomists responsible for this development. 

He was born in Eisenstadt, Hungary  in 1810. His father was an oboist in the orchestra of Nicholas, prince Esterházy. Joseph became a choirboy in the palace chapel and thus a student at the state boarding school. Because his parents were poor he had to find money of his own for his medical education.  

In 1813 Hyrtl’s family moved ftom Eisenstadt to Vienna. After completing his secondary education he studied medicine in that city. He was encouraged by the anatomist Christian Joseph Berres Edler von Perez (1796–1844), becoming the latter’s prosector in the summer of 1833, aged only 21 years.
In 1835 he earned his doctorate with a dissertation in the history of medicine entitled Antiquitates anatomicae rariores, in which he stressed the necessity of giving anatomical instruction a clinical orientation and considerd physiological experiments on animals to be unproductive. After receicing his doctorate he became an assistant to Joseph Julius Czermak (1799-1851), later also curator of the Anatomical Museum. Hyrtl gave courses in anatomy for students and practical anatomy for physiologists.

In 1837 Hyrtl, then 26 years old, was summoned to Prague as professor of anatomy at the Karls-Universität. In 1845 he returned to the vacated chair for anatomy in Vienna, succeeding Barres. Here he wrote his most famous book, Lehrbuch der Anatomie des Menschen, mit Rücksicht auf physiologische Begründung und praktische Anwendung which went through twenty editions and was translated into every modern language.

In 1845 Hyrtl went to the vacated Chair of Anatomy in Vienna. Under him the teaching of Anatomy there achieved world fame. His     Lehrbuch der Anatomie, first published in Prague 1846, was important for the introduction of applied topographical anatomy as a medical discipline in Austrian and German medical schools. A year later, 1847, Hyrtl published his Handbuch der topographischen Anatomie. According to himself, this book introduced topographical anatomy into the German-speaking world and made it an independent discipline.

In 1850 Hyrtl in Vienna founded the Museum für vergleichende Anatomie (Museum for Comparative Anatomy). He furnished anatomical museums world wide with preparations.
Hyrtl is reckoned as founder of the so called modern corrosion technique, in which wessels and hollow spaces in various organs mixtures of preparations are injected, and after the hardening the surrounding tissues are removed. The remaining cast showing never before seen details of the organs.
Delighting in precise work and trained in the tradition of an anatomy based on preparations, he was able through the skillful exploitation of his position as a university teacher to establish a virtual monopoly in the production and sale of special anatomical preparations.

Hyrt's microscopic injection preparations were considered unexelled, were world famous for their beaty, and brought high prices. Hyrtl thus revived and further developed the source of morphological instruction that the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638–1731) had originally discovered. With this method he made investigations in comparative anatomy, for example, of the mammalian inner ear - from the mouse to the elephant. Because of the macroscopic and morphological orientation of his research Hyrtl satisfied himself with corrosion specimens of the labyrinth and left the histological elucidation of the terminal auditory apparatus in the cochlea to his student Marchese Alfonso Giacomo Gaspare Cort (1822–1876). His comparative-anatomical collection of thousands of skeletons, as well as injection and corrosion-preparations of organs of man and animals now only exists in parts spread over several places.

In Vienna Hyrtl became incresingly isolated. His ambition and irascibility made him an extremely difficult colleague and finally cut him off from any close professional ties. Most of all, the physiologist Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke (1819–1892) became conscious of Hyrtl’s haughty manner and contempt for physiological experimentation. It is indicative of Hyrtl’s position in the Viennese medical faculty that in the thirty years of his membership, he was never elected dean. He was, however, elected rector for the academic year 1864-1865, during which the university’s five-hundredth anniversary took place. Although ambitious enough  to accept, Hyrtl was soon confronted with the many difficulties resulting from the domestic political situation. Consequent embitterment may have contributed to Hyrtl’s decision to retire in 1874, while still in full possession of his intellectual and physical powers. He settled in Perchtoldsdorf, where he spent the next twenty years working on publications on the history of anatomical nomenclature that are still of value, such as Onomatologia anatomica (1880). 

In 1847 he became a member of the Königliche Akademie der Wissenschaften and in 1864 he became rector of the university, However, as in 1874, the new building that had been promised for the Anatomical Institute was still not realised, Hyrtl retired from the university and lived the rest of his life in Perchtoldsdorf near Vienna, where he completes his work.

A particularly valuable part og Hyrtl’s heritage can be seen in Mödlinger Bezirksmuseum: the Hyrtl library’s fabulous anatomical foliants from the 16, 17, and 18. century. Some of his world famous corrosion preparations can also be seen there.

However haughty Hyrtl may have been, his heart was no anomaly. In Mödling he founded an orphanage and, since he was childless, made this institution the sole heir to the fortune he had earned from his textbooks and anatomical preparations. 

His preparations and textbooks earned Hyrtl an enormous fortune. His friend Joseph Schöffel (1832–1910) persuaded him to leave his fortune to build a Kinderbewahranstalt – an institution for orphans and findlings. He thus founded a Waisenhaus in Mödling, to which he donated his fortune. The Joseph Hyrtl Waisenhausstiftung inherited from him almost 600 Gulden, the equivalent of 5,4 million Euro. He also founded several scholarships for poor students. 

Hyrtl  published the first text on topographical anatomy in German. He was for 30 years the most popular lecturer on the subject in Europe, and ranks as one of the greatest of medical scholars.
A portrait bust made by Johann Unterhalmsteiner was unveiled in the arcade of the University. He himself, now a very  old man and half blind, gave the speach. He was the only academic thus honoured while still alive.

He is buried in Perchtoldsdorf.

We thank Betty Johannsmeyer for information submitted,



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