Bilharz, Theodor

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Bilharz, Theodor

(b. Sigmaringen, Germany, 23 March 1825; d. Cairo, Egypt, 9 May 1862)

anatomy, zoology.

Bilharz’ name is perpetuated in the name of the disease bilharziasis, which he described in 1851; the following year he discovered its cause. The son of Anton Bilharz, a counsellor of the exchequer, and Elisa Fehr, Bilharz grew up in the small, biedermeierlich south German city of Sigmaringen. He attended the secondary school there, and having developed a particular interest in natural history during his school years, he entered the University of Freiburg im Breisgau in 1843. There he studied under Friedrich Arnold, who gave him insight into anatomical research. In 1845 Bilharz accompanied Arnold to the University of Tübingen, where in 1849 he passed the state examination and received the M.D.

At Tübingen he became acquainted with Wilhelm Griesinger, who in 1850 asked Bilharz to accompany him to Egypt when he was named director of the Egyptian Department of Hygiene. Bilharz began as Griesinger’s assistant; and after Griesinger’s return to Germany in 1852, he was promoted to chief physician of a medical department. In 1856 he became professor of descriptive anatomy at the Cairo medical school, Kasr-el Aïn. There he had the opportunity to perform numerous dissections and thus discovered peculiar pathological changes—white extuberances of cancerous aspect—in the mucous membranes of the bladder, intestines, ureters, and seminal glands. He found that the cause of the changes was a hitherto unknown trematode, which he described to his zoology teacher Carl Theodor von Siebold in nine letters from 1 May 1851 to 1 January 1853; Siebold published these letters in 1853. In them Bilharz gave not only a detailed anatomical description of the parasite and the anatomical changes produced by it, but he also supplied excellent diagrams of a pair of the copulating flatworms, which he called Distomum haematobium, and diagrams of the eggs. In these diagrams he also depicted the Schistosomum mansoni, which was not mentioned again until 1907, when Sambon named it for his teacher Patrick Manson. The terms “bilharzia” and “bilharziasis” were coined by Heinrich Meckel von Hemsbach, who introduced them into scientific nomenclature in 1856, two years before David F. Weinand introduced the term “schistosoma.”

Bilharz never considered this consequential discovery to be as important as the work he did on the electrical organ of the thunderfish; in 1857 he wrote a monograph on the latter subject. He took his only European vacation in 1858, at which time he had the chance to report on his zoological research. In the following years Bilharz occupied himself with investigating native fauna—he gave the first description of a Nile fish, the Alestes macrolepidotus—and with anthropological and etymological activities.

In 1862 Bilharz accompanied the German explorer Ernst von Coburg-Gotha to Ethiopia; there, while treating a patient, he contracted typhoid fever and, just after his return to Cairo, he died. His discovery of the agent of tropical hematuria, which was by no means recognized by Bilharz’ contemporaries as epoch-making, was nevertheless to introduce a new era of tropical parasitology; and it initiated a successful fight against an illness that still infects millions of the earth’s inhabitants.


I. Original Works. Among Bilharz’ writings are “Ein Beitrag zur Helminthographia humana, aus brieflichen Mittheilungen des Dr. Bilharz in Cairo,” in Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Zoologie, 4 (1853), 53–76, table 5; 454–456, table 17; “Distomum haematobium und sein Verhältnis zu gewissen pathologischen Vetänderungen der menschlichen Harnorgane,” in Wiener medizinische Wochenschrift, 6 (1856), 49–52, 65–68; “Über Pentastomum constrictum,” in Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Zoologie, 7 (1856). 329–330, table 17; Das electrische Organ des Zitterwelses. Anatomisch beschrieben (Leipzig, 1875); and “Ü die Eingeweidewürmer Ägyptens,” in Zeitschrift der kaiserlichköniglichen Geselleschaft der Ärzte Wien, 14 (1858), 447–448.

II. Secondary Litrature. The most comprehensive biography is E. Senn, Theodor Bilharz: Ein deutsches Forscherleben in Ägypten, 1825–1862, Schriften des Deutschen Auslandsinstituts Stuttgart, series D, V (Stuttgart, 1931); see also H. Ben-Amram, “L’histoire de la draconculose et de la bilharziose et leur incidence économique et sociale,” thesis (Rennes, 1959); A. Bilharz, “Theodor Bilharz,” in Arehiv für die Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften und der Technik, 8 (1918), 232–236; J. Roos, “Theodor Bilharz,” M.D. dissertation (Würzburg, 1929); and H. Schadewaldt, “Theodor Bilharz,” in Deutschemedizinische Wochenschrift, 80 (1955), 1053–1055; “Die Erstbeschreibung und -abbildung von Bilharzia haematobia und mansoni durch Theodor Bilharz,” in Zeitschrift für Tropenmedizin und Parasitologie, 4 (1953), 410–414; “Theodor Bilharz, einer der Begründer deutscher tropenmedizioischer Forschung,” in Münchener medizinische Wochenschrift, 104 (1962), 1730–1734; “Theodor Bilharz und die Bilharziose,” in Berliner medizinische Zeitschrift, 14 (1963), 244–250; and “Unveröffentlichte Zeichnungen aus dem. Nachlass von Theodor Bilhatz,” in Münchener medizinische Wochenschrift, Bildbeilage 7 (1963).

Hans Schadewaldt