Friday, June 10, 2016

1800: Albrecht von Haller studies respiration

Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777)
Albrecht von Haller was not an asthmatic, although he was a sickly in his youth, and this would force him to focus on his studies.  He would become among the most brilliant minds of his era, and what he accomplished had a great impact on the evolution of many diseases, including asthma.

He was born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1708.  His biographer, Charles Bert Reed, said:
"Like many other men of genius, his infancy was sickly and feeble. He had rickets, which retarded his physical, even as it accentuated his mental, development. Driven in upon himself for entertainment, he studied, read, and drew designs at the precocious age of four." (6, page 17)
It was observed from a very young age that he was a genius. Reed said:
As with Mozart, Macaulay, Goethe, Leibnitz, and others, the most extraordinary things are told of Haller's ability and greed for knowledge. During his childhood he outstripped all his companions. By the end of his ninth year he was thoroughly familiar with the Greek Testament. He made a lexicon of the Greek and Hebrew words in the Old and New Testaments, with their different roots and meanings. He made a grammar of Chaldee. He assembled the lives of 2000 celebrated people, on the model of Bayle and Moreri, whom he had read. Unlike most boys he preferred long and exhaustive treatises with interminable sentences and no paragraphs. His unusual industry, his fiery zeal to educate himself, and his unlimited patience seemed to make nothing impossible. He, also, "took all knowledge for his province.'' (6, page 17-18)
He early began to exhibit the exceptional understanding, the unfailing memory, the tireless industry and the impulses thereto, that characterized his entire life. He entered upon his emotional period at the age of twelve. At this time, while sick with smallpox, he was inspired with love toward the young lady who read aloud to him, and to her he dedicated his first poem. It was written in French, and appropriately named "The Resolution to Love." (6, page 18)
After the death of his father, Haller moved nearer the city and entered the gymnasium. His thesis for admission was in Greek, although Latin was sufficient. He wrote much and after the manner of all aspirants to eminence he aped sedulously the form of some admired exemplar. Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Virgil were his familiars. Homer for romance and Virgil as the model for his verses. Being chained to his room often and long by reason of his feeble constitution, he took refuge in poetry, which he read and practiced in all the tongues he knew. He wrote poems of occasion, tragedies, translations of Ovid, Horace, and two books of Virgil, together with an epic of 4000 lines on the'' Origin of the Swiss Union of States." (6, page 18)
His father had wanted him to go into the ministry. However, when he was fourteen, and after his father died, he moved in with a friend of the family at Biel who happened to be a physician. This man had an impression on a young Haler, and inspired him to go into the medical profession. (6, page e18)

After a year at Biel, he went to Bern to start his medical education, then to Tubingen, and then to Holland where he studied at Leyden.  There he became a student of Herman Boerhaave, the leading medical professor of the era.  It was probably from Boerhaave that Haller would have learned as much about the respiratory tract and respiratory medicine as was available at that time. (6, page 18-19) (2, page 143)

Medical historian Thomas Bradford said he had such a zeal for anatomy that, while at Tubingen, he dissected dogs, and, at Leyden, he purchased half a body for dissection.  He also "engaged in grave robbing, and betrayed by the stench that arose, was obliged to flee." (2, page 143)

When he was 19 he showed senior Professor Coschwitz, who had dissected a new salivary duct.  Haller proved that it wasn't a salivary duct, it was a vein.  (1, page 322)(6, page 20)

In 1727, when he was only 19, he earned his medical degree.

So his gift of intelligence was evident at a very early age; he was a prodigy.  He would go on to become the greatest systematist (of medicine) since Galen, and one of the most imposing figures in all medical history," said Garrison.  He was "the master physiologist of his time." (1, pages 321-322)

He then traveled as part of his studies, and wrote poetry about nature along the way.  One of his poems, Die Alpen, was about his journey through the Swiss Alps in 1728, and it was finished in 1729, the same year he started his medical practice in Bern. The poem, along with several other poems he wrote, was published in his Gedichte in 1732. Die Alpen would end up being his most famous poem. (5)(6, page 21-23)

His book of poetry went through several editions, and, although some say it was quite popular, others contend that he wasn't the best poet.

In 1731 he gave lectures and demonstration at Basel, in place of his teacher. He then returned to Bern, "where his thorough knowledge, broad scholarship, and influential connections assured to him an immediate success," said Reed.  (6, page 27)

He added:
His practice increased, but he kept up his botanical enthusiasm. Ten miles a day he averaged over hill and valley in search of specimens, which he identified and wrote up in the evenings or during meals. Meanwhile his vast and various powers were fed with the most extensive, the most accurate, and the most elaborate study of botany, anatomy, and medicine. Not a moment was wasted. He reread the Greek and Latin writers wherever he happened to be—at the table, on promenade, and on horseback, and the major portion of his wedding day was spent upon an abstruse problem in Differential Calculus. (6, page 27)
He tried to get in as directing doctor at the University at Bern, and later as professor of history (he probably knew more history than anyone in Bern at the time), but he failed in attempts.    (6, pages 30-31)

At 26 he became professor of anatomy and director of the hospital at Bern. He became especially famous for his botanical and anatomical research, of which he earned the attention of King George II.  (2, page 143)(5)

King George II created Goettingin "in the hope it would surpass the universities of Halle, Leipzig, Wittenberg, and Helmstedt."  In 1736 King George II called Haller to the chair of professor of anatomy, surgery, chemistry and botany at this new university.  (2, page 143)(6, page 32-33)

His wife and his four children moved with him from Bern to his new home, and four weeks later his wife died.  The emotional stress of this even caused him to write another poem.
"Thy death, beloved, shall I sing? Ah, Mariane, what a theme! When sighs my words are mastering, And thought is but a troubled stream, That longing which for thee I feel, My constant needs intensify; The wounds within refuse to heal — Again I seem to see thee die. "My love too eager was, I know; But thou deservedst it and well; Thy form is mirrored in me so That all thy beauty I must tell. Each telling of this love for thee Some former joy recalls to mind; In part thou livest still in me, A tender pledge Love left behind."
In the meantime, Haller wrote many books, and some say he was so busy that he slept in a library, said Bradford. (2, page 143)

Bradford said he is often given credit as the physician to revive experimental physiology, or the study of the functions of living organism. This, according to Garrison, was a subject that was lacking since the great Galen studied medicine in the first century. (2, page 143)(1, page 322)

Garrison said Haller believed "the specific imminent property of all muscular tissue, and that sensibility is an exclusive property of nervous tissue or of tissues supplied with nerve. This classic research, based on 567 experiments, of which he himself performed 190, was made at Gottingen in 1757.  (1, page 323-324)

He believed that "the normal act of expiration hindered the flow of blood through the lungs," and "demonstrated that the lungs contracted when concentrated acid was applied to it."  (3, page 27)

He also performed experiments that would verify the spasmotic theoery of asthma, or at least that the muscular fibres that wrap around the air passages may spasm under certain circumstances. (4, page 4)

Haller was an avid athlete as a youth, and was burdened by sports injuries the rest of his life.  He was inflicted with a disease the Germans called Heimweh at the age of 45 in 1753, and retired to Bern for the remainder of his days, "leading a life of most varied activity as pubic health officer and savant, with a touch of 'Lord High Everything Else'." (1, page 323)

In the short time he spent as a physician, botanist, physioloist and anatomist, he earned the respect of his peers.  While most people simply forgot the man by the time the 20th century rolled around, his biographer Charles Bert Reed said that in his own time he was simply "surnamed the great." (6, page 14)

References: see "1870-1900: What asthma theory won the era?"
  1. Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "An introduction to the history of medicine," 
  2. Thorowgood, John C., "Asthma and Chronic Bronchitis: A New Edition of Notes on Asthma and Bronchial Asthma," 1894, London, Bailliere, Tyndall, & Cox
  3. Brown, Orville Harry, "Asthma, presenting an exposition of nonpassive expiration theory," 1917, St. Louis, C.V. Mosby Company
  4. Shmiegelow, Ernst, "Asthma, considered specially in relation to nasal disease," 1890, London, H.K. Lewis
  5. "Albrecht von Haller,", accessed 1/10/14
  6. Reed, Charles, Bert, "Albrecht von Haller: A Physician -- Not Without Honor," 1915, Chicago, Chicago Literary Club
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