Apáthy, Stephan

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Apáthy, Stephan

(b. Budapest, Austria-Hungary, 4 January 1863; d. Szeged, Hungary, 27 September 1922)

medical science, histology, zoology.

Apáthy’s father, István, was a professor at the University of Budapest and a famous expert in international law. Apáthy attended high school in Budapest and then studied medicine at the university. As a student he worked from 1883 to 1884 at the Institute of Pathology, where his interest in histology was awakened; in 1884 he published a paper dealing with the microscopic anatomy of naiades. He was known as the leader of a progressive student movement, and wrote poetry and essays on social themes. After obtaining his doctor’s degree in 1885, he became assistant to Theodor Margó at the Institute of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in Budapest, where he improved his knowledge of histology.

From 1886 to 1889 Apáthy had a scholarship to the marine biological laboratory in Naples, where he worked under Anton Dohrn. During this period he published seventeen papers and traveled in several European countries. In 1890 he was appointed professor of zoology, and a few years later became professor of histology and embryology at Kolozsvár in Transylvania (now Cluj, Rumania,) where he established a modern institute that became a famous international histological research center. In 1895 Apáthy was elected a corresponding member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and in 1905 he was appointed an honorary foreign member of the Royal Medicinal Academy of Belgium.

From his youth Apáthy had opposed the official policies of Vienna and Budapest. Unfortunately, after World War I he devoted more time to politics than to science. When Transylvania became part of Rumania, the government of the newly created Hungarian Republic appointed Apáthy as government commissioner of Transylvanian affairs to the Rumanian National Committee in Sibiu because of his progressive ideas and scientific reputation. He was, as a commissioner and representative spokesman of a defeated country, imprisoned by the Rumanians in Sibiu, but they, respecting his scientific reputation and patriotism, set him free again. He was even allowed to take all of his research material, collections, microscopes, and such. Apáthy returned to Hungary as professor of zoology at Szeged University, where he founded another modern institute. His health was impaired, however, and he died soon after.

Apáthy’s scientific achievements were in three fields: zoology, neurohistology, and microscopic technique. In zoology his most important contributions concerned the systematic and comparative anatomy of Hirudinea, especially of their nervous system.

In neurohistology Apáthy defended the concept of a continuous network of neurofibrils, passing from one neuron to another. The first research worker in this field, he found, with the aid of his original impregnation containing gold chloride, a network of finest neurofibrils in the intestine wall of marine Hirudines. According to his interpretation of his microscopic examination of the whole thickness of the intestinal wall—not, unfortunately, in microscopic sections—these neurofibrils are closely connected with all other cells of the intestinal wall tissues and pass from one neuron to another.

Apáthy considered the neurofibrils to be a connected system, forming an intimate unity with the various tissues penetrated by them. Consequently, he advanced the assumption of the continuity of neurofibrils in the whole animal body. To this idea Apáthy applied all his interpretations, and his further scientific work was given over, for the most part, to the proof and the polemic defense of his view. He published a series of papers opposing the views of Santiago Ramó y Cajal, Joseph Gerlach, Wilhelm Waldeyer, and others, in which he perseverantly tried to prove that the neurons are not merely apposed to each other and that the nervous irritation from one individual neuron to the other is not realized through its transfer per contiguitatem, but that the whole nervous system is connected continuously by means of reticularly arranged neurofibrils. Unfortunately he extended his observations, made on invertebrate nervous systems with a specific microscopic feature and function, to the whole class of vertebrates, thus leaving his hypothesis open to attack.

The prolonged controversy contributed, by the response in the world and the tough bilateral polemics lasting many years, to many new and important findings in the field of neurology. This controversy has recently been settled in favor of the neuron theory through electron microscopy. Apáthy always interpreted his morphological findings functionally, and thanks to him many scientists in other branches of biology (e. g., physiology, pathophysiology, neurology, pharmacology) were induced to extend his research. Apáthy is for these reasons to be considered the founder of the modern trends in neurohistology.

Apáthy’s work in microscopic technique constituted a great contribution to the development of modern histological techniques. His improvements in the fixation of tissues—in embedding them in paraffin, gelatine, or celloidin; in sectioning and staining them, or impregnating them with gold salts, or both—meant a great advance in histology and furnished many good results. Apáthy’s Die Mikrotechnik der thierischen Morphologie was an indispensable handbook for two generations of histologists. His greatest achievement is that he made microscopic technique a scientific method, based not only on empirical knowledge but also on systematic comparisons and investigations.


I. Original Works. Lists of Apáthy’s works may be found in Ambrus Ábráham, “Stephan von Apáthy” (see below), and in Ferenc Kiss, “Stephan von Apáthy als Neurolog” (see below).

II. Secondary Literature. There is no biography of Apáthy, but information on his life and work may be found in the following papers: Ambrus Ábráham, “Apáthy István,” in Communicationes ex Bibliotheca Historiae Medicae Hungarica, 25 (1962), 13–24, and “Stephan von Apáthy,” in H. Freud and A. Berg, Geschichte der Mikroskopie (Frankfurt am Main, 1963), pp. 65–75; Ferenc Kiss, “Stephan von Apáthy als Neurolog,” in Communicationes ex Bibliotheca Historiae Medicae Hungarica, 3 (1956), 1–64, and “Apáthy István nehézségei” (“The Difficulties of Istavá Apáthy”), ibid., 36–41; Gábor Kolosváry, “Apáthy mint rendszerezö elme a zoológiában források és személyes kapcsolat alapján” (“Apáthy’s Contribution to Zoology, Based on Works of Reference and Personal Recollections”), ibid., 25 (1962), 29–35; Maria Koszoru, “Apáthy István korának társadalma és a tudós szociálpolitikai munkássága” (“István Apáthy, the Society of His Time and the Social-Political Activities of the Scientist”), ibid., 53–57; Endre Réti, “Apáthy István emberi jelentosege” (“The Human Importance of Istvá Apáthy És Lenhossék szemléletében”— “Darvinističeskij gumanism vo vzljadach Apati i Lenchoseka” (“Apáthy’s and Lenhossék’s Opinion About Darwinian Humanism”), ibid., 27 (1963), 111–116, 117–122; and Gylyás Pál, Magyar irók élete és munkái (Budapest, 1939).

Josef Sajner