- A dictionary of medical eponyms

Wilhelm Heinrich Erb

Born 1840
Died 1921

Related eponyms


German neurologist, born November 30, 1840, Winnweiler, Palatinate; died October 21, 1921.

Biography of Wilhelm Heinrich Erb

Of the many German neurologists who flourished during the later 1800's, the most significant figure was Wilhelm Heinrich Erb. Primarily known for the advances he made in identifying, classifying, and treating the muscular dystrophies, many of which still bear his name, Erb also pioneered in the use of electricity in the diagnosis and treatment of nervous disorders. He was the first clinician to use the reflex hammer routinely in examinations. Erb was to Germany what Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) was to France, and William Richard Gowers (1845-1915) to England. For half a century he ruled over German neurology with an imperial hand.

Wilhelm Heinrich Erb was born in Winnweiler, in the Bavarian Palatinate, the son of the forester Friedrich Erb and Sophie née Hoffmeister. He was 17 years old when he was entered as a medical student at Heidelberg. He also studied in Erlangen and Munich. He was an assistant to Ludwig von Buhl (1816-1880) in Munich for a brief period of time, and for several years at Nikolaus Friedreich’s (1825-1882) clinic in Heidelberg.

Erb received his doctor’s degree at Heidelberg in 1864. The same year he became Privatdozent for internal medicine in Heidelberg, and in 1869 he was appointed Dozent (lecturer).

In 1880 Erb was appointed to a chair in special pathology at the University of Leipzig, where he also became head of the polyclinic, but returned to Heidelberg to assume the same positions there. He remained in Heidelberg for most of his life, succeeding his teacher Nikolaus Friedreich in 1883.

The man
Erb had the appearance of a cultured gentleman; he was always immaculately dressed and kept his professorial beard trimmed to the last hair. There was an air of detachment about him, neither he nor anyone else in that rigid hierarchy forgot that he was the Herr Geheimrat (Sir Privy Counsellor). He was punctual to the minute, and always on the alert.

Erb was also noted for his benevolence, as reflected, considering the period, in the equal care he gave all patients – peasant or aristocrat – in his large international practice. The title Seine Excellenz was conferred on him by the local reigning prince, the Grand Duke of Baden. His 70th birthday was an occasion for a special town and gown celebration in Heidelberg, where fighting fraternities in full fig and torch parades for academic worthies presented nothing unusual. His statue of bronze was unveiled in the park near the Akademisches Krankenhaus, and a street named after him. In 1876, Erb married Anna Gaß, with whom he had four sons.

In his later years Erb was a broken man; two of his four sons had died, and a third was killed at the front on the first day of World War I. Erb's end came quietly. On the way home from listening to Beethoven’s Eroica he caught a cold, and a few days later, bronchopneumonia claimed him.

Erb's first research chiefly concerned the fields of toxicology, histology, and therapeutics. His interest later turned to neurology, where he was to become one of the giants. He investigated the effect of electric current on the human organism. He popularised electrodiagnostics in neurology and demonstrated increased motor nerve irritability in tetanus.

He made early observations relating to syphilis and tabes dorsalis. In his works on tabes dorsalis he repeatedly sought to find the association between this disease and syphilis. Besides these fields he has left research material on poliomyelitis, claudication intermittens, various brain tumours, and the progressive muscular atrophy.

Among his most important writings are Handbuch über die Elektrotherapie and a dissertation on the spinal paralysis.

O Lord
Erb was an excellent teacher although something of a martinet with a short temper. On such occasions his language was not that customarily heard in academic circles – a holdover from his youth with helping his father, a forester. One of his sayings to his students, who included Ernst Julius Remak (1849-1911) and Max Nonne (1861-1959), was «Pray every morning before you get out of bed – ‘O Lord let me not idle my life away today.’»

We thank Patrick Jucker-Kupper, Switzerland, for information submitted

What is an eponym?

An eponym is a word derived from the name of a person, whether real or fictional. A medical eponym is thus any word related to medicine, whose name is derived from a person.

What is Whonamedit?

Whonamedit.com is a biographical dictionary of medical eponyms. It is our ambition to present a complete survey of all medical phenomena named for a person, with a biography of that person.


Whonamedit? does not give medical advice.
This survey of medical eponyms and the persons behind them is meant as a general interest site only. No information found here must under any circumstances be used for medical purposes, diagnostically, therapeutically or otherwise. If you, or anybody close to you, is affected, or believe to be affected, by any condition mentioned here: see a doctor.