Donders, Franciscus Cornelis

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Donders, Franciscus Cornelis

(b. Tilburg, Netherlands, 27 May 1818; d. Utrecht, Netherlands, 24 March 1889)

physiology, ophthalmology.

Donders was the youngest of nine children and the only son of Jan Frans Donders and Agnes Elisabeth (Clara?) Hegh. His father (who died when Donders was an infant) was not without means and occupied himself with chemistry, music, and literature, while his wife supervised his business.

Donders therefore passed the earliest years of his life in a family consisting only of women; in 1825 he was sent to a boarding school at Duizel, a village near Eindhoven. He remained there until 1831, working for his tuition as an assistant teacher during the final two years. After a short stay at the French School in Tilburg he attended the Latin School in Boxmeer, from which he graduated cum laude on 27 January 1835.

From July 1835 to December 1839 Donders was a student at the military medical school in Utrecht. Since this training conferred the right to treat only military men and their families, he enrolled in the medical faculty of Utrecht University. In February 1840 he was appointed health officer with the garrison in Vlissingen. The same month he passed the doctoral examination in medicine at Leiden and on 13 October 1840 received the M.D. from Leiden University.

Although he was educated as a Roman Catholic, he seems not to have practiced his religion after his time in Utrecht. He pleaded for the separation of religion and science and, according to his statements, was probably a theist or deist.

After he finished his studies Donders remained for some time with the garrison in Vlissingen. In August 1841 he was transferred to The Hague as medical officer. His sojourn there seems to have been important to the development of his career; he read, became familiar with the official and cultural life of that city, and was consulted by the inspector general about the reorganization of the Utrecht military medical school, where he was appointed docent in physiology and anatomy.

In September 1842 he returned to the University of Utrecht, where Gerrit Jan Mulder was intensively occupied with the renovation and expansion of chemistry as a discipline. Mulder requested Donders’ cooperation in histological and histochemical research. Important discoveries in embryology and physiology were made in Mulder’s laboratory, and Donders was present at the birth of physiological chemistry.

To augment his small income from teaching, Donders translated—among other things—Christian Georg Theodor Ruete’s Lehrbuch der Augenheilkunde. Indeed, as well as translating the work, he edited it and, where necessary, performed additional experiments. Soon, in addition to his physiological and clinical publications, he began to write articles on ophthalmology. He wrote frequently for the Holländische Beiträge zu den anatomischen und physiologischen Wissenschaften, which he published with the physiologists Isaac van Deen and Jacob Moleschott, and for the Nederlandsch Lancet, of which he was editor.

His lecture “Blik op de stofwisseling als bron der eigen warmte van planten en dieren” (“Consideration of Metabolism as the Source of Heat in Plants and Animals”) was published in 1845. In this work he attributed the regulation of heat mainly to the skin and also mentioned the principle of the law of the conservation of energy.

Donders was appointed extraordinary professor at the University of Utrecht—although there was no vacancy—to retain his services there. He chose to give courses that had not been taught before, including forensic medicine, ophthalmology, and (under the title of general biology) the science of metabolism and histology. He selected the latter term to avoid the word “physiology,” in order not to embarrass his beloved teacher, the physiologist J. L. C. Schroeder van der Kolk, with even the appearance of competition.

Because of his courses in the physiology of the eye and its adaptation to pathological problems, Donders was soon consulted as an ophthalmological expert. Although he was urged to establish himself as an ophthalmologist, he hesitated to do so. In 1851 he was invited by Sir James Young Simpson and others to visit the important English eye clinics. This trip was of great significance to him: in England and on his return by way of France he met outstanding English, German, and French physiologists and eye doctors, including Sir William Bowman, Albrecht von Graefe, and Claude Bernard. (In London he also heard about the ophthalmoscope, invented by Helmholtz.) Strengthened by the events of his travels, Donders decided to establish himself as a specialist in diseases of the eye.

In 1852 Donders was appointed ordinary professor at Utrecht and concerned himself especially with ophthalmology. With his own money he opened a polyclinic and managed to obtain the use of the cholera hospital, which, however, soon became too small. A committee of private individuals then raised 40,000 florins to buy a large mansion, which was remodeled as a charity hospital for indigent patients; it opened in 1858. The hospital also functioned as an independent educational institution, primarily at the service of the university, as the university itself provided little opportunity for ophthalmological education. Here Donders established a center for both research and teaching and soon, in addition to university students, many foreign physicians took part in studies on refraction and accommodation anomalies and other ophthalmological problems.

In his autobiography Donders mentions that these years demanded a great deal of his strength. The hospital and the physiological laboratory, his courses in many subjects, research in the laboratory, and work for the press and the university all required his attention. When in 1862 Schroeder van der Kolk died, Donders was offered the professorship in physiology and promised a new laboratory. Donders accepted this offer because, as he said, physiology was his first love. Donders resigned from his ophthalmological practice; he remained, however, as director of the hospital until 1883. The new laboratory, equipped according to his directions, was opened in 1866. Donders’ work was not limited to purely scientific studies, and he was often consulted by the university administrators. As dean of the medical faculty he was a capable leader. He was concerned in making science serve the needs of humanity; his publications give an impression of the essential and varied nature of his work.

In 1845 Donders married Ernestine J. A. Zimmerman, the daughter of a Lutheran minister in Utrecht. She died in 1887, after a long illness marked by mental depression. Shortly after he retired in 1888, Donders married the painter Abrahamine Arnolda Louisa Hubrecht, a daughter of his friend, the state councilor P. F. Hubrecht. Although Donders complained about his health in the diaries and correspondence of his last years, he appeared healthy and youthful until the time of his retirement. He died less than a year later, of a progressive brain disease, possibly a tumor.


I. Original Works. Donders published more than 340 works, mainly on ophthalmology and physiology, of which about a hundred are of a clinical, pathological, or physiochemical nature. Much of his work was published in French, English, or German. On the Anomalies of Accommodation and Refraction of the Eye with a Preliminary Essay on Physiological Dioptrics (London, 1864) has been translated into various languages, but has never appeared in Dutch. Also of importance are his Handleiding tot de natuurkunde van den gezonden mensch, written with A. F. Bauduin, 2 vols. (Utrecht–Amsterdam, 1851, 1853); De voedingsbeginselen. Grondslagen eener algemeene voedingsleer (Tiel, 1852); and P. B. Bergrath, trans., Die Nahrungsstoffe, Grundlinien einer allgemeine Nahrungslehre (Crefeld, 1853), a semipopular work taken from articles in the Geneeskundige Courant that was intended to give both the physician and the educated layman an outline of the elements of nutrition as a basis for a rational diet.

II. Secondary Literature. On Donders and his work see Sir William Bowman, “In Memoriam F. C. Donders,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 49 (1891), vii–xxiv; F. P. Fischer and G. ten Doesschate, Franciscus Cornelis Donders (Assen, 1958), a very extensive monograph in Dutch, which includes a reprint of the above; M. A. van Herwerden, “Eine Freundschaft von drei Physiologen,” in Janus, 20 (1915), 174–201, 409–436; “Die Freundschaft zwischen Donders und von Gräfe,” ibid., 23 (1918); J. Moleschott, Franciscus Cornelis Donders, Festgruss zum 27 Mai 1888 (Giessen, 1888); P. J. Nuel, “F. C. Donders et son oeuvre,” in Annales d’oculistique, 14th ser. (année 52), 5–107, of which pp. 5–45 are biographical and pp. 45–107 contain a systematic bibliography of works by Donders and his students; C. A. Pekelharing et al., Paula Krais, trans., F. C. Donders Reden gehalten bei der Enthüllung seines Denkmals in Utrecht am 22 Juni 1921 (Leipzig, 1922), which contains a German bibliography of Donders’ work based on the one by Nuel; R. A. Pfeiffer, “F. C. Donders,” in Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine (October 1936); H. J. M. Weve and G. ten Doesschate, Die Briefe Albrecht von Gräfes an F. C. Donders (Stuttgart, 1936); and Het Jubileum van Professor F. C. Donders gevierd te Utrecht op 24 en 28 Mei 1888. Gedenkboek uitgegeven door de commissie (Utrecht, 1889), of which pp. 115–132 contain an autobiographical essay.

Rodolphine J. Ch. V. ter Laage