Oken (or Okenfuss), Lorenz

views updated May 29 2018


(b. Bohlsbach bei Offenburg, Baden, Germany, 1 August 1779; d. Zürich, Switzerland, 11 August 1851)

natural science, philosophy, scientific, congresses, science journals, science periodicals.

For the original article on Oken see DSB, vol. 10.

This postscript gives new insights into Oken’s contribution to science during the first half of the nineteenth century. Historical studies since the 1970s show Oken’s continued influence upon the professionalization of science through “the Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte” up to contemporary achievements recorded by Heinrich Schipperges and Dietrich von Engelhardt (1987).

Much more research on romanticism, its relationship to naturphilosophie and science illuminates Oken’s transitional role in the integration of institutional science: from Isaiah Berlin’s (1999) Roots of Romanticism to Andrew Cunningham’s and Nicholas Jardine’s (1990) Romanticism and the Sciences, to insights by Dietrich von Engelhardt, from 1990-1999, notably in English translation “Historical Consciousness in the German Romantic Naturforschung” (1990), and Wolfgang Pross’s “Lorenz Oken-Naturforschung zwischen Naturphilosophie und Naturwissenschaft”(1991).

Professional and institutional issues are addressed by Wolfgang Schirmacher (1996) and Elinor Shaffer (1990) showing that education for Oken included science, the history of science, and the professionalization of science through textbooks, notably authored by Oken’s Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie(1809, 1843) and Naturgeschichte für Schüler(1821). The role of popular science was assured by Oken’s encyclopedic Allgemeine Naturgeschichte für alle Stände(1839–1842) and through the popular journal Isis(1818–1848), confirmed by Dietrich von Engelhardt’s 1999 encompassing study Medizinhistoriographie im Zeitalter der Romantic—Eine Wissenschaft Emanzipiert Sich: die Medizinhistoriographie von der Aufklärung bis zur Postmoderne.

A study at the University of Jena under the directorship of Dr. Olaf Breidbach sheds light on Oken’s political persona. The “sonderdruck” (special publication) with Hans-Joachim Fliedner chronicles Oken’s political involvement during the 1817 “burschenschaften” demonstrations in Lorenz Oken (1779–1851) ein Politischer Naturphilosoph.

Oken and Naturphilosophie Oken embraced romantic science and his worldview was shaped by German romanticism and its philosophy of nature, known as Naturphilosophie (Engelhardt, 1999). Oken studied medicine at Freiburg University and natural history at the Universities of Würzburg and Göttingen. In 1802 he conceptualized the Abriss der Naturphilosphie summary and published his System der Naturphilosophie the following year. His 1805 Die Zeugung (Generation) merited recognition by the followers of Naturphilosophie, and notably by Friedrich Schelling who recommended him for a professorial position at Jena.

Similar to Fichte, Oken erected a total system of nature, encompassing philosophy of nature, science, ethics, and spirit. Fichte’s 1806 Addresses to the German Nation channeled Oken into employing old-German language in order to revitalize scientific expressions and to avoid French usage in the historical context of the Napoleonic era. Oken embraced Schelling’s transcendental philosophy briefly, for example, Schelling’s two seminal works: Ersten Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilosophie of 1799, and Die Weltseele of 1799–1800, but later, during his Jena years, Oken distanced himself from metaphysical speculations. Johann Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre and Schelling’s transcendental Idealphilosophie, exploring a total system of nature that extended philosophical principles into the physical sciences using mathematical elements of mathesis as well as empirical observations, and ordering aspects of nature as stages of a comprehensive metamorphosis. With mathesis as an integral part of Naturphilosophie Oken sought to combine reflection with experiment—through algebraic formulation—aimed at achieving a balanced relationship between knowledge and experience. The schema of Oken’s system of naturphilosophie encompassed algebraic + 0—defining the equilibrium he named “metaebene” whereby a synthesis of a new intellectual category of “totalität” (totality) was achieved.

Oken structured a unique classification of animal classes into five major groups according to their sense-organs in Grundriss der Naturphilosophie, effectively transforming the Linnaean system. In Die Zeugung Oken postulated that life began on the seashore as Urschleim (primal mucous plasm) of “infusoria,” cells whose agglomerations and combinations formed into organisms (Engelhardt, 1997). Published in his Beiträge, Oken’s embryological experiments in 1806, assisted by Dietrich Georg Kieser and Karl Ernst von Baer, foreshadow Mathias Jacob Schleiden’s and Theodor Schwann’s cell theories.

In Oken’s time the level of sophistication with respect to scientific evidence was becoming more professionalized in the context of scientific institutions such as the Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte resulting from the criteria that they set for scientists’ membership; for example an accredited PhD for presenting their scientific papers at conferences; presenting work in specific domains of science. Oken did hundreds of experiments with chick embryos to gather information on cell theory with Karl Ernst von Baer (1792–l876), comparative embryologist and proponent of epigenetic thinking. Oken pronounced the seminal insight: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” He came under the influence of Schelling at Göttingen and began distancing himself from Schelling’s metaphysics of nature in his Jena years

Oken published on the significance of the intermaxillary bone (Zwischenkieferknochen) at his inaugural lecture at Jena in 1807, and in the journal Isis in 1817, before Goethe did in 1820. This caused antipathy as a result of priority claims by the latter (Ecker; Pfuhl; Breidbach, Fliedner, and Ries; Schwarz; Schuster).

Oken corresponded on scientific questions with a wide audience that included Louis Napoleon, Anton Mesmer, Richard Owen, and Georges Cuvier. His work was discussed by Britain’s renowned morphologist Owen and by anatomists Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier in France. In 1818 Oken was named a member of the prestigious Deutsche Academie der Naturforscher Leopoldina, legitimating his efforts in science and education. After Oken’s death, Ernst Haeckel, founder of monism, cited Oken, as did Alfred Brehm in his popular encyclopedia Brehm’s Tierleben.

As an esteemed pedagogue, Oken authored textbooks: for example, Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie (Textbook of nature philosophy) and Naturgeschichte für Schüler (Natural history for schoolchildren). He became a household name through the encyclopedic Allgemeine Naturgeschichte für alle Stände (General natural history for all social classes), focusing education through science. Upon the invitation of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussian minister of education, Oken contributed Über den Wert der Naturgeschichte besonders für die Bildung der Deutschen (On the value of natural philosophy especially for the education of Germans) on the philosophy of education for the 1810 inaugural of the University of Berlin (Schirmacher). (Oken submitted the paper in 1809 to Wilhelm von Humboldt, upon invitation by Humboldt, the minister of education, intended for the opening of the University of Berlin. Oken did not deliver it in person).

Oken and the Organization of German Science Oken was a catalyst to the institutionalization and professionalization of German science, acting as agent and mediator in the first half of the nineteenth century. The perpetuation of the Gesellschaft deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte to this day is testimony of the continued contribution to science that Oken had initiated.

After the Napoleonic era, the economist Friedrich List signified the unification of fragmented Germany and Europe through a Zollverein, a tariff union, while Oken embodied the unification process through science with the “Republic of Intellectuals” (Breidbach, Fliedner, and Ries). As part of the 1817 Burschenschaften liberal movement, during the Wartburg festival, Oken led students from Jena University with rallies and speeches. Oken’s political activity pitted him against the conservative forces of Goethe and Metternich. Under pressure from Goethe and Saxe-Weimar authorities, Oken chose to continue as publisher and editor of Isis when forced to choose between his professorship at Jena and the production of Isis. Oken gave up his university career at Jena, dedicating his efforts to the proliferation of science, although the political climate resulted in the 1819 Carlsbad decrees. This decisive event spurred Oken’s intensive scientific activities on two different fronts—Isis and the Gesellschaft.

A fusion of culture and institution occurred at two levels through Oken’s leadership: through Isis and through the Gesellschaft. Isis was founded in response to the need for a scientific forum to exchange ideas and publish research and discoveries. Isis functioned as cultural prism in the context of its time: Advertisements in Isis enabled a flourishing trade exchange across international borders. Oken’s aim was to internationalize science through scientific collaboration and exchange.

He contributed to science by increasing the international exchange of information, firstly through Isis but foremost through the Gesellschaft’s annual conferences as scientists collaborated on scientific projects. Isis targeted scientists, students of science, and the general public interested in scientific inventions and new discoveries. The journal included, in addition to scientific information, advertisements; for example, specimens for collection or exchange and announcements concerning special science events, such as the “gesellschaft” conferences. The Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte (GDNÄ) was a scientific society whose originality consisted in staging annual conferences at a different university each year, traveling to German cities as well as to Austria, Chekoslovakia, and Italy. In the 1820s Oken inaugurated the Gesellschaft members’ choirs, the “Liedertafel,” as a means of socializing at conference banquets; drawing upon the German choral society tradition, such male camaraderie fostered collaboration and unified identity as scientists (Jackson).

As an example of professionalization in science instituted by Oken, for inclusion as member to the GDNÄ certain criteria were stipulated. The member held a doctoral degree from an accredited university, attended annual conferences, presented papers of discoveries, inventions, or “new” science, and became affiliated to specific “sektionen” (a branch of science; e.g., botany, physiology, morphology, embryology, and the like). From 1828 onwards, the GDNÄ had a constitution that was reviewed every five years. Every year it appointed a director of the annual conference and a geschäftsführer (manager of operations) to oversee and manage the conference. Minutes and proceedings of conferences were recorded, read and published. The editorial policy of the journal, as stipulated by Oken, solicited articles of a scientific nature and invited members of the GDNÄ to submit articles for publication. It allowed critiques of articles only if a person who submitted a critique had first submitted an article for publication and had been accepted.

Isis would publish announcements of a professional or science nature but would not advertise venues of a material or frivolous nature; it would not print material of a political nature, nor of a religious nature. Isis published the proceedings of the GDNÄ and announced its forthcoming conferences. Oken involved himself with the promotion of the education of science at the high school level, at the technical institutes, and at the universities. His publications of 1809 (3rd ed., 1843) Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie; Isis(1817–1848); 1821 (Naturgeschichte für Schüler) and 1839–1842 (Allgemeine Naturgeschichte für alle Stände, 13 volumes) attest to his life’s effort on behalf of science and history education. Isis was read by the professional as well as the general public, and his Lehrbuch became a reference book for all audiences. Through these efforts Oken promoted understanding and appreciation of science among the broader public while professionalizing science among members of the GDNÄ whose mandate was to promote science at a different university each year.

Oken was a seminal agent in intellectual, scientific, institutional and political endeavors towards the professionalization of science during his lifetime and beyond, contributing to its transformation in Germany and throughout Europe. The Gesellschaft conferences popularized science through members’ monthly Isis publications of developments, discoveries, and inventions. Similar societies were founded in England, France, Scandinavia, and Italy (Ecker), drawing on the “Okenian” Gesellschaft. The tandem development—Isis and the Gesellschaft—professionalized science while at the same time securing its intellectual capital for German and European science in specialized branches (Sektionen der Wissenschaft)—as decreed by the 1828 Gesellschaft conference held in Berlin, under Oken and Alexander von Humboldt, at which hundreds of scientists participated. Notably, the branches of biology, embryology, morphology, physiology, anatomy, and applied medicine were defined by Oken as fields. He taught, researched and published in these areas.

Oken’s later professional career, from 1833 until his death in 1851, reestablished his status as a professor of medicine and the rector of the University of Zürich. In 1818 Oken was given the prestigious title “member of the Deutsche Academie der Naturforscher Leopoldina” based on his achievements as editor and publisher of Isis and for his numerous scientific publications. He gained considerable status as founder of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte in 1822, which became a model for other similar scientific societies. However, the Revolution of 1848 in its sweep across Europe effectively hindered the continuation of Isis.

Little is known about Oken’s personal life. He married the daughter of Professor John Stark (1753–1811) in 1814 at Jena. They had a son, who died as a result of a duel, and a daughter.


At Göttingen University there is a full archival collection of Isis (1817–1848). Freiburg University holds an archival collection, being cataloged as of 2007, of Oken’s notes, drawings, and sketches, and collected material from his years at Würzburg as well as his period at Freiburg. Under the direction of Olaf Breidbach, Hena University was as of 2007 cataloging material from Oken’s Jena University professorship years (1807–1819).


Abriss der Naturphilosphie [Summary of nature philosophy]. Göttingen: Vandenhoek und Ruprecht, 1802.

Die Zeugung. Bamberg, Germany: Göbhardt, 1805.

With Dietrich Georg Kieser. Beiträge zur vergleichenden Zoologie, Anatomie und Physiologie [Contributions to comparative zoology, anatomy, and physiology]. 2 vols. Bamberg, Germany: Göbhardt, 1806–1807.

Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie. 3rd ed. Jena: Frommann, 1809. Zürich: Verlag von Friedrich Schulthess, 1843. Reprinted: Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms Verlag, 1991.

Isis von Oken. Periodical. Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1817–1848. Volume 1 includes an account of the Wartburg Festival

Okens Naturgeschichte für Schulen. Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1821.

Allgemeine Naturgeschichte für alle Stände. l3 vols. Stuttgart: Hoffman, 1839–1842.

Isis. Göttingen, l8l7–l848.

Über den Wert der Naturgeschichte besonders für die Bildung der Deutschen. Jena: F. Frommann, 1809. Translated as “On the Utility of Natural History” in Schirmacher, 1996.


Brandt Butscher, Heiderose. “Lorenz Oken and Nineteenth-Century German Romantic Science—Transformation from ‘Naturphilosoph’ to Professional Scientist through the Institutionalization of Science.” PhD diss., York University, Toronto, 2001.

Berlin, Isaiah. The Roots of Romanticism, Edited by Henry Hardy. The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Bräuning-Oktavio, Hermann. Oken und Goethe im Lichte neuer Quellen. Weimar: Arion, 1959.

Breidbach, Olaf, Hans-Joachim Fliedner, and Klaus Ries, eds. Lorenz Oken (1779–1851): Ein politischer Naturphilosoph. Sonderdruck Weimar: Verlag Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 2001

Brehm, Edmund Alfred. Brehms’s Tierleben, Volksausgabe in Einem Band. [1876] Re-edited in one tome by Wilhelm Bardorff. Berlin: Safari Verlag, 1951.

Cunningham, Andrew, and Nicholas Jardine, eds. Romanticism and the Sciences. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, l990.

Deeg, Karl. “Der letzte Nachfahre des Naturphilosophen Lorenz Oken.” Traunscheiner Wochenblatt, 10 February 1958. Memorial.

Ecker, Alexander. Lorenz Oken. Stuttgart: E. Schweizerbart, 1880. Translated into English by A. Tulk. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1883.

Engelhardt, Dietrich von. “Historical Consciousness in the German Romantic ‘Naturforschung.’” Translated by Christine Salazar in Cunningham and Jardine, 1990.

_____. Vitalism between Science and Philosophy in Germany around 1800.” In Vitalism from Haller to the Cell Theory, edited by Guido Cimino and François Duchesneau. Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 1997.

_____. Medizinhistoriographie im Zeitalter der Romantic.” In Eine Wissenschaft emanzipiert sich: Die Medizinhistoriographie von der Aufklärung bis zur Postmoderne, edited by Ralf Broer. Pfaffenweiler, Germany: Centaurus, 1999.

_____. Die Geschichte der GDNÄ.” Available from http://www.gdnae.de/werist/geschi.html.

Fischer, Eugen. “Lorenz Oken, der geniale Naturphilosoph, Streiter für Deutschland.” Mein Heimatland Sonderdruck 3 (1942).

Fischer, Hans. “Lorenz Oken in Zürich.” Schweizerische Hochschulzeitung 5 (1956).

Gode-von Aesch, Alexander. Natural Science in German Romanticism. New York: AMS Press, 1966.

Heuss, Theodor. Inaugural. Conference Gesellschaft deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte. University of Freiburg, 1950.

Jackson, Myles W. “Harmonious Investigators of Nature: Music and the Persona of the German Naturforscher in the Nineteenth Century.” Science in Context(March 2003): 121–145.

Jacyna, L. S. “Romantic Thought and the Origins of Cell Theory.” In Romanticism and the Sciences, edited by Andrew Cunningham, and Nicholas Jardine. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Kertesz, G. A. “Notes on Isis von Oken, l8l7–l848.” Isis 77 (l986): 497–503.

Kuhn-Schnyder, Emil. “Lorenz Oken, 1779–1851—Erster Rektor der Universität Zürich.” Zürich: Verlag Hans Rohr, 1980. Lecture celebrating the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth.

Mischer, Sibille. Der Verschlungene Zug der Seele—Organismus und Entwicklung bei Schelling, Steffens und Oken. Würzburg: Verlag Königshausen & Neumann, 1997.

Pfannenstiel, Max, and Rudolph Zaunick. Lorenz Oken und J. W. von Goethe: Dargestellt auf Grund neu erschlossener Quellenzeugnisse. Leipzig: Johann Ambrosius Barth Verlag, 1941.

Pfannenstiel, Max. “Die Wirbelmetamorphose Okens an Hand Neuer Dokumente.” Berichte der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft Zu Freiburg I. Br., 41 (1951): 75–100. Cited by Hermann Bräuning-Oktavio (1959), above.

_____. Oken in Göttingen.” Berichte der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft zu Freiburg i. Br. (1958).

—_____. Kleines Quellenbuch zur Geschichte der Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte: Gedächtnisschrift für die hundertste Tagung der Gesellschaft im Auftrage des Vorstandes der Gesellschaft verfasst. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1958.

Pfuhl, W. “Goethe und die Wirbelstheorie des Schädels.” Medizinische Monatsschrift für allgemeine Medizin und Therapie Wissenschaft 8: (1949).

Pross, Wolfgang. “Lorenz Oken—Naturforschung zwischen Naturphilosophie und Naturwissenschaft.” In Saul, 1991.

Saul, Nicholas, ed. Die deutsche literarische Romantik und die Wissenschaften. Publications of the University of London, Institute of Germanic Studies, vol. 47. Munich: Iudicium-Verlag, 1991.

Schipperges, Heinrich, and Dietrich von Engelhardt. Gesellschaft deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte—Wissenschaftsgeschichte auf den Versammlungen 1822–1976. Bibliographie der Vorträge und allgemeine Übersicht. Stuttgart: Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1987.

Schirmacher, Wolfgang, ed. German Essays on Science in the Nineteenth Century. The German Library, vol. 36. New York: Continuum, 1996.

Schwarz, Walter. “Die Wirbel- und Metamerentheorie des Schädels,” Part 2, “Zusammensetzung und Abteilung des Schädels der Wirbeltiere nach den Anschauungen Okens, Goethes und Gegenbaurs.” D. Phil. Diss. University of Königsberg, Germany, 1919. Med. Diss. Published Königsberg: Buchdruckerei Otto Kümmel, 1919.

Schuster, Julius. Oken: Der Mann und sein Werk. Berlin: W. Junk, 1922. Lecture at the hundredth anniversary meeting of the Gesellschaft Naturforscher und Ärzte in Leipzig.

Shaffer, Elinor S. “Romantic Philosophy and the Organization of the Disciplines: The Founding of the Humboldt University of Berlin.” In Cunningham and Jardine, 1990.

Sudhoff, Karl. Hundert Jahre Deutscher Naturforscher Versammlungen. Leipzig, F. C. W. Vogel, 1922. Published by the association for its hundredth annual meeting. Sudhoff was the archivist of the Gesellschaft at that time.

Heiderose Brandt Butscher

Oken (or Okenfuss), Lorenz

views updated May 18 2018


(b. Bohlsbach bei Offenburg, Baden, Germany, 1 August 1779; d. Zurich, Switzerland, 11 August 1851)

natural science, philosophy, scientific congresses.

The son of poor farmers in the Black Forest, Oken studied at the universities of Freiburg, Würzburg, and Göttingen. In 1803, at the age of twenty-four, he published a system of, Naturphilosophie, thereby marking his adherence to the school of thought founded by Schelling a few years earlier. Throughout his life he remained faithful to this way of thinking, which he outlined in 1805 in a small book of methodological importance, Die Zeugung. Oken was a prolific writer whose works record his growing erudition and developing conceptions about nature. After graduating from the University of Freiburg in 1804, he held various teaching posts at Göttingen, Jena, Munich, and Erlangen. The frequent changes in his place of employment were occasioned by the boldness of the ideas he taught; the violence of the scientific polemics in which he engaged; and his political activities in revolutionary youth movements, which he German principalities severely repressed. Finally, in 1832 he secured a post at the recently founded University of Zurich, where he was a respected teacher until his death in 1851.

Oken took an active interest in all branches of natural history and of human knowledge in general, including optics, mineralogy, and even military science. His contributions to anatomy deal with the osteology of the skull and the vertebrae, the organogenesis of the intestinal tract and the umbilical cord, and, more generally, with the subject of comparative anatomy. Oken’s importance lies far more in the formulation of a number of fundamental concepts, which constitute the guiding threads of his many publications. A good example of his treatment of one of the major themes of his corpus is offered byn Die Zeugung, in which he discusses the elementary units of living organisms, “the infusoria.” In this work Oken contended that all flesh can be broken down into infusoria and that all higher animals consist of constituent animalcules. “For this reason,” he wrote, “we shall call them primal animals (Urthiere).” From the semantic point of view, this word is crucial; it was long used to designate the protozoans, and the prefix Ur- is one of the key elements of Naturphilosophie and of Romantic thought in general.

According to Oken, these primal animals constitute the original material not only of the animals as we know them but also of the plants; they may thus be called the primal material of all organized beings. The primal animals are subordinated to a higher organism in which they facilitate a unique common function, or in which they carry out this function by realizing their own potentialities. When the entities are combined they form another entity, the organism, which is a fusion of primal beings, each element having lost its individuality in favor of a higher unity.

In his treatise on the philosophy of nature Oken postulated the existence of a primal slime. It results from a combination of various processes that—when they reach equilibrium—must produce a sphere; for the organism is the image of the planet and therefore possesses an analogous spherical form. This primal plasm supposedly formed along the boundary of the seas and the earth. Oken held that a primal mucous follicle emerged from this plasm or infusorian, and that the genesis of the organism is merely the accumulation of an infinite number of mucous particles. According to Oken, organisms are not preformed; no organism is created that is larger than an infusorial particle; no organism is created or has ever been created that is not microscopic. Everything that is larger has not been created but has developed. Man was not created; he developed. These aphoristic pronouncements were repeatedly reprinted in the reeditions of the book until 1843, that is, until five years after the appearance of Schwann’s work on the cell theory. These formulations of Oken’s prefigure some of the fundamental concepts of nineteenth-century natural science.

In the preceding paragraphs we have summarized one aspect of Oken’s thought; his own prose has become virtually impenetrable to the modern reader unfamiliar with the enthusiastic outpourings of Romantic philosophy. Throughout his scientific career Oken devoted his greatest efforts to fostering the study of natural science, a subject then at the height of its development. In communicating his enthusiasm for it, he was, of course, also attempting to promote his own views. He was one of the first to stress the pedagogical value of natural history at all levels of instruction, and he wrote many books for both students and adults. Sometimes these were modest works, but often they were major treatises in several volumes. Further, Oken founded his own journal, Isis oder enzyklopädische Zeitung von Oken, which for three decades (1817–1847) published popular scientific articles of a very high caliber. Oken himself wrote the majority of the articles; and in them he set forth his basic views, particularly the theory that the skull is composed of several vertebrae. In claiming priority for this theory he became involved in a long and bitter polemic with Goethe, a complicated affair that has been the subject of many historical studies. Several times Oken discussed the traditional explanations of the origin of the first man. Oken often gave free vent to his anger regarding the contemporary political situation and thus ran afoul of the official censors. By the variety of its contents, Isis offers a remarkable picture of the development of the field of natural history in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Oken made a lasting contribution to science through his role in the creation of scientific congresses organized outside the framework of the universities. Accordingly, at the Congrès Scientifique de France, held at Strasbourg in 1842, Oken, despite his absence, was acclaimed the father of scientific meetings. He was the founder of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Aerzte, which first met at Leipzig in 1822, and the 107th meeting of which was held in Munich in October 1972. The proceedings of this organization constitute a precious record of the fruitful union of biology and medicine in the first half of the nineteenth century. After a very agitated university and scientific career, Oken found a peaceful life and a definite appointment at the University of Zurich, and as the rector of this newly created university he had to receive the young Georg Büchner, who now figures prominently in the history of European thought by virtue of the recent vogue for his literary works. By profession Büchner was a naturalist who had received his doctorate at Strasbourg under Georges Louis Duvernoy and was appointed to the University of Zurich after giving an inaugural lecture that recently has been republished. Unfortunately, Büchner died before he was able to take up his post.

Contemporary judgments of Oken’s work and personality varied considerably, but there was general agreement on the importance of his contributions to comparative anatomy, which were well known even outside the German-speaking countries. One of his shorter books was published in French in 1821, when Oken was already known among scientists in Paris. For example, Cuvier’s lecture notes contain analyses of Oken’s writings. In 1830 Oken’s name was mentioned again during the famous controversy at the Académie des Sciences, in which Goethe played an important, although indirect role.

Oken has never been completely forgotten, but during his lifetime sharply differing assessments were made of his role. Claude Bernard, in his Introduction à l’étude de la médicine expérimentale, mentioned Oken along with Goethe, Cams, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and Darwin. On the hundredth anniversary of his birth (1879) he was the subject of an article in Die Gartenlaube, one of the most widely read popular German newspapers. A. Ecker (1880) wrote a fervent biography of Oken, which was translated into English. Then, with the rise of experimental natural science— the founders of which were hostile to Naturphilosophie —Oken’s reputation was temporarily eclipsed. Interest in him revived around 1930 when historians of science began to study the Romantic period more closely. Indeed, their opinions of Oken tend to reflect their overall assessment of Romantic biology and its repercussions in modern biology.

Oken has also been exploited for ideological purposes. In 1939 J. Schuster interpreted certain passages in Oken’s writings as favorable to German nationalism. The philosopher Ernst Bloch has treated Oken from the opposite point of view in his treatise on the problem of materialism.

The centennial of Oken’s death was commemorated by a colloquium held in 1951 in his native region, at Freiburg im Breisgau. The few quotations given above show that despite his obscurity and combativeness, Oken remains a subject of considerable interest for the historian of modern biology.


I. Original Works. A complete list of Oken’s publications can be found in the works of Ecker (1880) and Pfannenstihl (1953), both of which are cited below. The following works are referred to in the text: Die Zeugung (Bamberg, 1805); Beiträge zur vergleichenden Zoologie, Anatomie und Physiologie, 2 pts. (Bamberg Würzburg, 1806–1807), written with D. G. Kieser; Über Bedeutung der Schädelknochen (Bamberg, 1807); Erste Ideen zur Theorie des Lichts, der Finsternis, der Farben und der Wärme (Jena, 1808); Grundzeichnung des nattürlischen Systems der Erze (Jena, 1809); Über den Wert der Naturgeschichte besonders für die Bildung der Deutschen (Jena, 1809); Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie (Jena, 1809, 1831; 3rd ed., Zurich, 1843); “Über die Bedeutung der Schädelknochen…,” in Isis, 1 (1817), 1204–1208; and “Oken, wie er zur Bedeutung der Schädelknochen…,” in Isis, 2 (1818), 511–512.

See also “Entstehung des ersten Menschen,” in Isis, 5 (1819), 1117–1123; Esquisse du système d’anatomic, de physiologic et d’histoire naturelle (Paris, 1821), Naturgeschichte für Schüler (Bamberg, 1821); “Vergleichung alter Sagen und Überlieferungen mit Okens Ansicht der Entstehung des Menschen aus dem Meere,”in Isis.,9 (1821), 1113–1115; Allgemeine Naturgeschichte für alle Stände, 13 vols. (Stuttgart, 1839–1842); Elements of Physiophilosophy, trans. from the German by A. Tulk (London, 1847); and “Über die Schädelwirbel gegen Hegel und Göthe,” in Isis (1847), 557–560.

II. Secondary Literature. See E. Bloch, Das Materialismusproblem. Seine Geschichte und Substanz (Frankfurt am Main, 1972), esp. 258–260; H. Bräuning Oktavio, Oken und Goethe im Lichie neuer Quellen. Beiträge zur deutsehen Klassik (Weimar, 1959); G. Büchner, “Mémoire sur le système nerveux du barbeau,“; in mémoires de la société du Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Strasbourg, 2 (1835), 1–57; Über Schadelnerven. Probevorlesung (Zurich, 1836), in Büchner, Sämmtliche Werke und Briefe, W. R. Lehmann, ed. (Hamburg, 1971); Congrès scientifique de France, I (1843), esp. 87, 581; A. Ecker, Lorenz Oken (Stuttgart, 1880), trans, into English by A. Tulk (London, 1883); E. Gagliardi, H. Nabholz, J. Strohl, Die Universität Zürich 1833–1933 undihre Vorlaufer(Zurich, 1938), esp. 262–276; M. Klein, Histoire des origines de la théorie cellulaire (Paris, 1936), esp. 18–22; “Sur les résonances de la philosophic de la nature en biologie moderne et contemporaine,” in Revue philosophique, 144 (1954), 514–543; and “Goethe et les naturalistes français,” in Goethe et l’esprit franqais (Paris, 1958), 169–191, esp. 177; D. Kuhn, Empirische und ideelle Wirklichkeit. Studien Über Goeihes Kritik des französischen Akademiestreites (Graz, 1967); A. Lang, “Oken, Lorenz (eigentlich Okenfuss),” in Allgemeine deutsche Biographic, XXIV (Leipzig, 1881), 216–226; E. T. Nauk, “Lorenz Oken und die medizinische Fakultät Freiburg im Breisgau,” in Oken Heft (1951), 21–74; E. Nordenskiöld, Die Gesehichte der Biologic(Jena, 1926), esp. 290–294; and “Oken-Heft,“; in Berichte der Naturforschenden Gescllschaft zu Freiburg im Breisgau, 41 , no. 1 (1951).

See also J. L. Pagel, “Oken,” in Biographisches Lexikon der hervorragenden Aerzte aller Zeiten und Vöiker, 4 (Vienna-Leipzig, 1886), 416; M. Pfannenstiehl, “Lorenz Oken,” in Oken-Heft (1951), 7–20; “Schriften und Varia über Lorenz Oken von 1806 bis 1951,” ibid., 101–118; and “Lorenz Oken. Sein Leben und Werken,” in Freiburger Universitätsreden, n.s. 14 (1953); J. Schuster, “Oken, Welt und Wesen, Werk und Wirkung,“; in Archiv für Gesehichte der Mathematik, der Naturwissenschaften und der Technik, n.s. 3 (1929), 54–70; J. Schuster, ed., Laurentius Oken gesamnielte Schriften, Programme zur Naturphilosophie (Berlin, 1939), esp. 320–328, Oken Geistesgeschichtliche Stellung; C. Sterne [Ernst Krause], “Ludwig Lorenz Oken. Zum hundertjährigen Geburtstag eines Vielgeschmäheten,” in Gartenlaube (1879), 518–520; I, Strohi, Oken und Büchner. Zwei Gestalten aus der Uebergangszeit von Naturphilosophie zu Naturwissenschaft (Zurich, 1936); and G. von Wyss, Die Hochsehule Zürich in den Jahren 1833–1883 (Zurich, 1883).

Marc Klein