Sunday, December 6, 2009
Theodor Schwann was born on December 7, 1810 in Neuss, near Dusseldorf, in Rhenish Prussia, which at the time was a providence of the French Empire. Theodor was the fourth of thirteen children of a goldsmith who had set up a successful printing business. From his father Theodor inherited a proclivity for working with his hands which suited him well in his scientific career. He spent the play hours of his childhood building miniature physical instruments from primitive materials.
Theodor attended a Jesuit college in Cologne and went to the University of Bonn, where after initially studying theology, his natural inclination for science led him to study medicine, studying under Johannes Muller. Muller, recognizing Schwann's abilities, made him an associate and they researched the motor and sensory roots of spinal neurons and blood coagulation. Schwann migrated to Warzburg, and then to Berlin to finish his doctorate and again work with Muller.
In Berlin Schwann became an aid at the Anatomical Museum of which Muller was the director. It was during this time that Schwann laid the basis for the study of nervous and muscle tissue that others would elaborate on. Schwann was one of the first to deal with living tissue on only a chemical and physical basis, ignoring the aid of "vital force". Schwann also discovered that alcoholic fermentation and the fermentation that causes putrefaction were carried out by microbes, a discovery that was ignored and even ridiculed at the time. Adept with the microscope, Schwann was the first to find the thin layer of cells on the inside of blood vessels, which would later be called the endothelium and confirmed the observation of Robert Remark of the cellular sheath around nerve cells, the cells of which would later be named after Schwann.
All of this work would have been enough for Schwann to be considered a great scientist, but Schwann is most famous for his elaboration of the cell theory of biology. In 1839 Schwann published "Microscopical Researches into the Accordance in the Growth and Structure of Animals and Plants", in which he continued the work that Matthias Schleiden had started with plants and identified the cell as the basic unit of living tissue in animals. The discovery was prompted when Schwann was having lunch with Schleiden. Schleiden was describing the nuclei he had found in plant cells and Schwann recognized that he had seen similar structures during his microscopic examinations of animal tissues. The two went to the anatomy theater (this was at Louvin where in 1839 Schwann had been appointed professor of anatomy) where Schwann showed Schleiden animal cell nuclei. From this point on Schwann dedicated his research to studying animal cells.
After all of his early success Schwann did little active research. In 1848 he was called to the University of Liege, where he remained till his death. In 1875 he published an indignant pamphlet denouncing the Catholic clergy for claiming that he testified in favor of the miraculous nature of the appearance of stigmata on Louise Lateau and he died in 1882 at the age of 72.
"Theodor Schwann"; Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Vol. 17 (1882) p. 460-1
"Heroes of Medicine: Theodor Schwann"; The Practitioner; Vol. 59 (1897) p.498-501
Kettenmann, Helmut; Ransom, Bruce R.; Neuroglia; Oxford University Press, USA; 2004
Leon, Fredericq; "Sketch of Theodor Schwann"; The Popular Science Monthly; Vol. 37 (1897) p.257-264
Otis, Laura; Muller's Lab; Oxford University Press, USA; 2007