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Johann Friedrich Meckel, the Elder


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German anatomist, born July 31, 1724, Wetzlar; died September 18, 1774, Berlin.

Biography of Johann Friedrich Meckel, the Elder

Johann Friedrich Meckel, often called The Elder or Grandpa to distinguish him from his grandson. The first in a family of four noted German anatomists, he was followed by his son, Philipp Friedrich Theodor Meckel (1756-1803), and later by two grandsons, the famous Johann Friedrich Meckel (1781-1833) and August Albrecht Meckel (1790-1829). This family of physicians was conspicuously short-lived, the four above mentioned averaging 47 years.

Meckel studied medicine at Göttingen where he obtained his medical doctorate in 1748 with a famous thesis in which he described his discovery of the ganglion submaxillare, by Meckel called ganglion maxillare.

He returned to Berlin, became prosector in anatomy, and was the first to teach at the newly established school of midwifery. He became professor of anatomy, botany, and obstetrics at Berlin in 1751. At the time, King Friedrich Wilhelm (Frederick II the Great, third king of Prussia from 1740 to 1786), showed his disapproval of pregnant single women by having them flogged. After a thorough beating they were then admitted to the Charité for delivery, because the king was interested in the offsprings as potential soldiers. In 1770 obstetrics was taught at the Collegium Medico-Chirurgicum on models by Meckel, who was a fashionable doctor and "the most prolific prescription writer of all times". Professor of obstetrics, he never set foot at the Charité and never delivered a baby.

Johann Friedrich Meckel the Elder was the founder of the famous anatomical collection in Halle an der Saale – Die anatomischen Sammlungen zu Halle – also known as The Meckel Collection, at the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg. This work was continued by his and grandson. By 1830 this enormous collection of anatomical preparation counted some 12.000 items. It now includes approx. 7000 exhibits, such as mummified parts of the body, organs, skeletons, skulls and bones from both humans and many animal species, normal and deformed foetuses and models for the purpose of teaching anatomy. The exhibition is divided into a medical (human anatomy) and zoological part. The oldest exhibits are well over 200 years old, e.g. a complete 'situs inversus' which originates from the era of Johann Friedrich Meckel the elder, and specimens from the Department of Anatomy from the former Wittenberg University (which was unified with Halle in 1817) .


  • Tractatus anatomico physiologicus de quinto pare nervorum cerebri. Göttingen 1748.
    Meckel's graduation thesis, containing his description of the sphenomaxillary ganglion (Meckel's ganglion) and of the recess in the dura that lodges Gasser's ganglion (Meckel's cave). Meckel was one of Albrecht von Haller's (1708-1777) finest pupils and a commendatory letter from Haller is included at the end of the book.

  • Observations anatomique sur un noeud ou ganglion du second rameau de la cinquieme paire des nerfs du cerveau etc.
    Histoire et mémoires de l'Académie royale des sciences et des belles-lettres de Berlin.
    Mémoires de l’Académie des sciences et belles lettres de Berlin, année 1749.
    Translated into Latin. [On the ganglion sphenopalatinum, also called ganglion Meckeli (majus).
  • Description anatomique des nerfs de la face.
    Mémoires de l’Académie des sciences et belles lettres de Berlin, 1751.
  • Physiologische und anatomische Abhandlungen von ubngewöhnlicher Erweiterung des Herzens und der Spannadern des Angesischts. Berlin, 1755.
  • Nova experimenta et observationes de finibus venarum ac vasorum lymphaticorum in ductus viscerages excretoria corp. hum. ejusque structurae utilitate. Berlin, 1772.
  • Tractatus de morbo hernioso congenito et complicato feliciter curato. Berlin, 1772.
  • Beschreibung der Krankheit des Herrn Leibarztes Zimmermann u. s. w.
    Translated from Latin by Ernst Gottfried Baldinger (1738-1804). Berlin, 1772.

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