Ebel, Johann Gottfried

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Ebel, Johann Gottfried

(b. Züllichau, Germany, 6 October 1764; d. Zurich, Switzerland, 8 October 1830)

medicine, geography.

Ebel’s father was a wealthy merchant, and his mother died when he was still young. He went to high school in Neuruppin and in 1780 entered the University of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder to study medicine. After studying there and in Vienna, he received his M. D. degree in 1788 with a thesis on the comparative anatomy of the brain. He continued his scientific work but also entered politics. Ebel lived for some years in Paris, where he came to know several of the leading figures of the French Revolution. During his extensive travels he became fascinated by Switzerland and wrote his famous Anleitung (1793), which is essentially a geological and historical guide to the country. During the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, Ebel used his influence with the French leaders to improve conditions for the Swiss population and was rewarded with Swiss citizenship (1801). He settled there in 1810.

Like many intellectuals of his time, Ebel worked in many fields. He translated the political works of Sieyès into German, and he worked extensively in ethnology, statistics, and comparative anatomy. His reputation was such that Goethe suggested him for the chair of surgery and anatomy at the University of Jena (1803). Ebel loved his adopted country and wrote a number of enthusiastic books about it. They contributed to the image of Switzerland, and because of their popular style, especially that of the Anleitung, they attracted many visitors to the country. He also participated in establishing new hotels and set up the first lookout point in Switzerland, at Rigi. The purpose of his books was to spread knowledge of Switzerland, and he can thus be considered one of the pioneers of the Swiss tourist industry.


Ebel’s works in medicine are almost forgotten, and his fame rests on his books about Switzerland, the most important of which is Anleitung auf die nützlichste und genüssvollste Art die Schweiz zu bereisen, 2 vols. (Zurich, 1793; 2nd ed., 4 vols., 1804–1805; 3rd ed., 4 vols., 1809–1810). The last five eds. (8th ed., 1843) were in 1 vol. This popular work was translated into several languages and also appeared in pirated editions. Ebel’s other works include Schilderungen der Gebirgsvölker der Schwiz, 2 vols. (Tübingen, 1798–1802; 2nd ed., Leipzig, 1802–1803), an ethnological description of the population in the cantons of Glarus and Appenzell. His most important geological work is Über den Bau der Erde in Alpengebirge, 2 vols. (Zurich, 1808). He also wrote a number of popular, descriptive books about Switzerland, such as Malerische Reise durch Graubünden (Zurich, 1825).

As a result of his fame and popularity, many (mostly panegyric) biographies of Ebel were written just after his death. Among the later ones is H. Escher, “J. G. Ebel,” in 80. Neujahrblatt zum Besten des Waisenhaus in Zürich (1917).

Nils Spjeldnaes