Berger, Johann Gottfried

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Berger, Johann Gottfried

(b. Halle, Germany, 11 November 1659; d. Wittenberg, Germany, 2[?] October 1736)

physiology, medicine.

Berger was the son of Valentin Berger, an important educator of the mid-seventeenth century. He studied mathematics and medicine at Jena from 1677 to 1680, chiefly under Georg Wolfgang Wedel, a physician who was especially interested in iatrochemistry. At Jena, Friedrich Hoffmann and Georg Ernst Stahlwere among his fellow students, After a brief period at Erfurt, Berger returned to Jena and graduated in 1682 with a thesis entitled De circulatione lymphae et catarrhis. In connection with this work he traveled through France, Italy, and perhaps Holland. From 1684 to 1688 he worked at the University of Leipzig with Johannes Bohn, who influenced Berger to develop a critical attitude toward iatrochemistry. Berger wrote two dissertations at Leipzig: De mania (1685) and De chylo (1686). From 1688 until his death Berger worked at the University of Wittenberg; first as assistant professor and from 1689 as third-ranking professor of anatomy and botany. He celebrated his appointment to the latter with an inaugural addressin the spirit or natural theology. In 1693 he assumed the chair of pathology, and in 1697 Friedrich August I, king of Poland and Saxony, appointed him physician in ordinary. From 1730 he was the consiliarus aulae, that is, the senior of the entire university.

Berger’s chief scientific work is his Physiologia medica (1701). Written in perfect Latin, this work deals in a “modern” way with the physiological functions of the organs and organ systems. While the Physiologia medica of his teacher Wedel was, in spirit and structure, still modeled closely on Jean Fernel’s neo-Aristotelian physiology, Berger’s work is based on the recent discoveries in anatomy, physics, and chemistry; in this respect, it is similar to Bohn’s Circulus anatomico-physiologicus of 1680. Berger tends heavily toward iatromechanics and the corpuscular theory of Descartes, whom he often quotes. The body is a natural machine connected with an immortal soul (mens is substantia cogitans; corpus is substantia extensa) and united harmoniously by divine design.

The first, larger part of the book deals with the physiology of the adult human being; the second with reproduction and development. He discusses extensively the circulation of the blood and argues that the flow of blood and the nerve fluid determine the rhythmical activity of the heart. He considers the arteries to be elastic, as Giovanni Borelli had suggested. Berger describes several experiments involving the injection of mercury and colored liquids into the blood vessels. He attributed body heat to the rapid movement of those fine particles mentioned by Descartes. It originates in a heavenly material and not in the calor innatus, as the ancients had suggested. Berger confirmed the circulation of blood by exsanguinating a dog within a few minutes, and he determined the total amount of blood.

Berger deals very thoroughly with the function of nerves: they are porous and conduct a fluid that is distributed by arterial blood pressure from the brain by way of the nerves to the periphery. There is neither a spiritus animalis nor are there the facultates or archei of ancient physiology. Berger rejects the explosion theory of muscle contraction proposed by William Thomas and Borelli, stating that the intellect controls the nerve fluid during voluntary motions. The soul resides in the corpus callosum, not in the pineal gland. The soul does not, as Stahl maintained, influence the activity of the internal organs. Berger also states that complete section of the vagus nerve is not immediately followed by death, but only after some days; breathing does not serve to cool the blood, but to restore and refine it by means of contact with the air.

The Physiologia is a general, critical presentation of contemporary physiology. No particular discoveries are associated with Berger’s name. The last of the four editions of the Physiologia was edited after Berger’s death in 1737 by Cregut, who added a long introduction. “De Anthropologia,” in which the then important literature of anatomy and physiology is discussed.

In addition to a short treatise concerning the large arterial branches, accompanied by a good chart (1698), Berger wrote about fifty treatises. One dealing with the springs at Karlsbad has been reprinted several times. An attack against Stahl’s animism was published in 1702.

Berger was very well read, very critical, and an opponent of all obscurity; he fought against the weak points of the Galenists and Paracelsians, as well as against the students of Stahl.


I. Original Works. Berger’s thesis is De circulatione lymphae et catarrhis (Jena, 1682); his main work, Physiolagia medica sive De natura humana liber bipartitus (Wittenberg, 1701; Frankfurt, 1737), Albertus Haller, Bibliotheca anatomica, I (1774), 720–721, lists several physiological treatises: De chylo (1686); De corde (1688); De ovo et pullo (1689); De polypo (1689); De homine (1691); De succi intrinseci per nervos transitu (1695); De respiratione (1697) De odoratu (1698): De somno (1706): De nutritione (1708); De vita longa (1708); and De secretione (1712). Additional clinical treatises are listed in Haller’s Bibliography of Practical Medicine, I (1779), 641–643. Additional works are Dissertatio de natura morborum medico (Wittenberg, 1702), a polemic against Stahl; and De thermis carolinis commentatio qua omnium orgia fontium origo fontium calidorum itemque acidorum ex pyritide ostenditur (Leipzig-Wittenberg, 1709), also published in German.

II. Secondary Literature. Of especial value is E. A. Underwood, “Johann Gottfried von Berger (1659–1736) of Wittenberg and His Text-book of Physiology (1701),” in his Science, Medicine and History, II (Oxford, 1953), 141–172, which includes the locations of the Physiologia medica but no general bibliography. Biographical information can also be found in Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, II (1875), 375; Bayle and Thillaye, Biographie medicale, II (Paris, 1855), 94; Biographie universelle ancienneet moderne, IV (Paris, 1843), 15; Biographisches Lexikon der hervorragenden Ärzte, 2nd ed., I (Berlin-Vienna, 1929), 475; and J.C. Poggendorff, Biographisch-literarisches Hand-wörterbuch, I (1863), 148.

K. E. Rothschuh