1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wagner, Rudolph

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WAGNER, RUDOLPH (1805-1864), German anatomist and physiologist, was born on the 30th of June 1805 at Bayreuth, where his father was a professor in the gymnasium. He began the study of medicine at Erlangen in 1822, and finished his curriculum in 1826 at Würzburg, where he had attached himself mostly to J. L. Schönlein in medicine and to K. F. Heusinger in comparative anatomy. Aided by a public stipendium, he spent a year or more studying in the Jardin des Plantes, under the friendly eye of Cuvier, and in making zoological discoveries at Cagliari and other places on the Mediterranean. On his return he set up in medical practice at Augsburg, whither his father had been transferred; but in a few months he found an opening for an academical career, on being appointed prosector at Erlangen. In 1832 he became full professor of zoology and comparative anatomy there, and held that office until 1840, when he was called to succeed J. F. Blumenbach at Göttingen. At the Hanoverian university he remained till his death, being much occupied with administrative work as pro-rector for a number of years, and for nearly the whole of his residence troubled by ill-health (phthisis). In 1860 he gave over the physiological part of his teaching to a new chair, retaining the zoological, with which his career had begun. While at Frankfurt, on his way to examine the Neanderthal skull at Bonn, he was struck with paralysis, and died at Göttingen a few months later on the 13th of May 1864.

Wagner's activity as a writer and worker was enormous, and his range extensive, most of his hard work having been done at Erlangen while his health was good. His graduation thesis was on the ambitious subject of “the historical development of epidemic and contagious diseases all over the world, with the laws of their diffusion,” which showed the influence of Schönlein. His first treatise was Die Naturgeschichte des Menschen (in 2 vols., Kempten, 1831). Frequent journeys to the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, and the North Sea gave him abundant materials for research on invertebrate anatomy and physiology, which he communicated first to the Munich academy of sciences, and republished in his Beiträge zur vergleichenden Physiologie des Blutes (Leipzig, 1832-1833), with additions in 1838). In 1834-1835 he brought out a text-book on the subject of his chair (Lehrbuch der vergleichenden Anatomie, Leipzig), which recommended itself to students by its clear and concise style. A new edition of it appeared in 1843 under the title of Lehrbuch der Zootomie, of which only the vertebrate section was corrected by himself. The precision of his earlier work is evidenced by his Micrometric Measurements of the Elementary Parts of Man and Animals (Leipzig, 1834). His zoological labours may be said to conclude with the atlas Icones zootomicae (Leipzig, 1841). In 1835 he communicated to the Munich academy of sciences his researches on the physiology of generation and development, including the famous discovery of the germinal vesicle of the human ovum. These were republished under the title Prodromus historiae generationis hominis atque animalium (Leipzig, 1836). As in zoology, his original researches in physiology were followed by a students' text-book, Lehrbuch der speciellen Physiologie (Leipzig, 1838), which soon reached a third edition, and was translated into French and English. This was supplemented by an atlas, Icones physiologicae (Leipzig, 1839). To the same period belongs a very interesting but now little known work on medicine proper, of a historical and synthetic scope, Grundriss der Encyklopädie und Methodologie der medicinischen Wissenschaften nach geschichtlicher Ansicht (Erlangen, 1838), which was translated into Danish. About the same time he worked at a translation of J. C. Prichard's Natural History of Man, and edited various writings of S. T. Sömmerring, with a biography of that anatomist (1844), which he himself fancied most of all his writings. In 1843, after his removal to Göttingen, he began his great Handwörterbuch der Physiologie, mit Rucksicht auf physiologische Pathologie, and brought out the fifth (supplementary) volume in 1852; the only contributions of his own in it were on the sympathetic nerve, nerve-ganglia and nerve-endings, and he modestly disclaimed all merit except as being the organizer. While resident in Italy for his health from 1845 to 1847, he occupied himself with researches on the electrical organ of the torpedo and on nervous organization generally; these he published in 1853-1854 (Neurologische Untersuchungen, Göttingen), and therewith his physiological period may be said to end. His next period was stormy and controversial. He entered the lists boldly against the materialism of “Stoff und Kraft,” and avowed himself a Christian believer, whereupon he lost the countenance of a number of his old friends and pupils, and was unfeelingly told that he was suffering from an “atrophy of the brain.” His quarrel with the materialists began with his oration at the Göttingen meeting of the Naturforscher-Versammlung in 1854, on “Menschenschöpfung und Seelensubstanz.” This was followed by a series of “Physiological Letters” in the Allgemeine Zeitung, by an essay on “Glauben und Wissen,” and by the most important piece of this series, “Der Kampf um die Seele” (Göttingen, 1857). Having come to the consideration of these philosophical problems late in life, he was at some disadvantage; but he endeavoured to join as he best could in the current of contemporary German thought. He had an exact knowledge of classical German writings, more especially of Goethe's, and of the literature connected with him. In what may be called his fourth and last period, Wagner became anthropologist and archaeologist, occupied himself with the cabinet of skulls in the Göttingen museum collected by Blumenbach and with the excavation of prehistoric remains, corresponded actively with the anthropological societies of Paris and London, and organized, in co-operation with the veteran K. E. von Baer, a successful congress of anthropologists at Göttingen in 1861. His last writings were memoirs on the convolutions of the human brain, on the weight of brains, and on the brains of idiots (1860-1862).

See memoir by his eldest son in the Göttinger gelehrte Anzeigen, “Nachrichten” for 1864.