Return ticket to Cologne: Theodor Schwann, wandering and melancholic genius

Geneviève AUBERT
Department of Neurology, Cliniques Universitaires Saint-Luc, Bruxelles, Belgium

The life and career of Theodor Schwann (1810-1882) can be followed along the German-Belgian-French Thalys route. Born in Neuss near Düsseldorf, Schwann was in secondary school at Cologne. He attended university in Bonn, Würzburg and Berlin, where he studied and worked in Müller's famous laboratory. He then began microscopic and physiological studies on nerves, muscles, and blood vessels. While studying peripheral nerves, he first described the specialized supporting cell that bears his name since then. It was certainly appropriate that he is associated with a particular type of cell, since he was one of the founders of the cell doctrine. This theory revolutionized biology by establishing that the cell is the elementary unit of life. All anatomy and physiology of the nervous system rests on this basic concept. However, Schwann cannot be reduced to one structure and one theory. His interests were broad. He made important studies on digestion, alcohol fermentation and putrefaction processes. Throughout his life, he showed an interest in photography and other technical developments.

Schwann's brilliant debut was followed by an austere academic career in Belgium. In 1839, the Universit&eacue; Catholique de Louvain offered him the chair of anatomy. The same year Schwann expressly traveled to Paris to learn Daguerre's technique. In 1848, he left Louvain for the University of Liège, enticed by his compatriot Spring, whom he succeeded to the chair of anatomy and later of physiology. This Belgian period appears disappointing from a scientific point of view. Schwann's profoundly Catholic mind was tortured by intense philosophical questioning and existential doubts. He went through a mystical phase, with marked neurotic traits. He began the composition of a vast treatise. This Theoria, which should have been a general system of organisms, started from cell theory, going through brain function and psychology to theoretical considerations. nevertheless, Schwann remained an attentive observer of scientific as well as technical advances. In 1875, he became a member of the Association belge de Photographie. His forty years of teaching were marked, by and international celebration, in Liège in 1878. Schwann was offered a splendid photographic album with 263 pictures of all the great scientists of his time. In 1882, three years from his retirement, he died in Cologne.


Session IV -- Poster Session 1
Friday, 15 June 2001, 9:00 - 10:00 am

Sixth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Eighth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

Cologne, Germany