Haller, Albrecht von

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Haller, Albrecht von (1708-1777): Swiss Physiologist.

Born in Bern to an aristocratic family, Albrecht von Haller was a child prodigy, who spoke Greek and Hebrew at nine and wrote poetry in several languages. He went to the University of Leiden, in Holland, to study medicine, and completed his thesis in 1727. He then began to travel all over Europe, where he met many distinguished scientists, while continuing to write poetry. He published his verses in 1732. In 1736, he was appointed as professor of anatomy, surgery, and botany, to the newly created university of Göttingen. From 1743 to 1753, he published a collection of anatomical plates in six volumes, where many organs were mapped for the first time. In 1751, he issued his theory on the irritability of the muscles, which he attributes to the muscular tissue itself, without any intervention of the nerves. In opposition to Descartes for whom the body is essentially a mechanism which requires a vital principle to animate it, Haller suggested an inherent vitality of the fibers unrelated to any external factor. He went back to Bern in 1753, where he wrote his Elementa physiologiae corporis humanis (8 vol.1757-66) which was the first comprehensive physiology book where the human body was studied as a whole, and where the scattered facts discovered by his predecessors were all brought together: Physiology thus ceased to be a mere adjunct of medicine and became an independent science. It was used as a standard textbook for more than a hundred years. Haller also made important contributions in embryology and botanic.

Further Reading:

Hubert Steinke, Irritating experiments: Haller’s concept and the European controversy on irritability and sensibility, 1750-90, 2005.

Baudry Samuel

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