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Birth of the Cell Doctrine

Medium ImageAs a general rule of thumb, it is recommended to be familiar with the history of one’s scientific field, and not merely the contemporary trends of thought.

That’s generally why I liked The Birth of the Cell so much when I read it. Dissatisfied by the standard accounts of the origin of the cell doctrine, Henry Harris read the original writings of the relevant early cytologists from the first visualization of animalcules to the identification of the cell nucleus and binary fission. Although very dense reading, the result is a book that describes the slow, awkward development of a science and the rivalries of the scholars involved.

For instance, Matthias Schleiden, Theodor Schwann, and Rudolf Virchow turn out to not be the singularly brilliant thinkers ahead of their time that we think, when we hear their names at the top of the cell doctrine. Other names have largely been forgotten when it comes to the cell doctrine. Jan Evangelista Purkyne is such an example, whose reputation far from adequately honors his work, for reasons quite other than scientific. From Page 91:

The number of eponyms that still bear his name is evidence enough of his productivity, including Purkyne’s vesicle (the vesicula germinativa), Purkyne’s cells (the large cells that he discovered in the cerebellum), Purkyne’s corpuscles (the lacunae of bone), Purkyne’s granular layer (branched spaces in the enamel of teeth), Purkyne’s figures (dark lines produced by the retinal vessels under certain conditions of illumination), Purkyne’s images (three pairs of images seen in the pupil).

Purkyne also made significant and early correlations between plant and animal tissues, before those of Schwann (who largely avoided citing Purkyne). As a consequence, it is the 1837-38 work of Schleiden, Schwann, and the mentor Johannes M??ller, presented in widely circulated monographs, that are remembered.

Similarly, the work of Robert Remak, also an outsider in German society, was largely stolen by Rudolf Virchow, who was a better lecturer than scientist. Virchow himself conceded that he could was not the discoverer of the ideas which he was putting forward, but he did gladly take credit as the propagator of those ideas, for which he gained fame. From Page 135:

One of the factors that contributed to the durable success of Vichow’s book [Cellularpathologie] was his use of the phrase ‘Omnis cellula e cellular’… it is not uncommon, even nowadays, for a theory or a substance to become fashionable if it is given an attractive name of sobriquet. But it would be a mistake to regard Cellularpathologie merely as a piece of didacticism, for in it Virchow assembled a very wide range of disparate observations, some of which were his own, and imposed on them a unity that flowed from his central theme, namely, that in all organisms, plant as well as animal, the formation of tissues was driven by the binary fission of cells.”

Harris gleaned all of these observations from reading the journal articles, monographs, and textbooks of the period, to see what the scientists actually thought at the time, and how those minds changed over time.

1 Comment

  1. apalazzo on June 7, 2008 at 1:05 am

    I’ll have to add this book to the list. Thanks for that.

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