Fritsch, Gustav Theodor

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Fritsch, Gustav Theodor

(b. Cottbus, Germany, 5 March 1838; d. Berlin, Germany, 12 June 1297)

anatomy, phystology,zoology, anthropology, photography.

Fritsch was the son of the royal Prussian inspector of buildings; his maternal grandfather was a wellknown Silesian industrialist named Kramsta. After his Gymnasium education in Breslau he decided to work at Berlin under the physiologist Johannes Muller, whose early death prevented any personal association. After serving in a guards regiment, Fritsch began to study medicine and science at the University of Berlin and later attended the medical schools of Breslau and Heidelberg; at these schools he met Hermann von Helmholtz, Ludwig Traube, Friedrich von Frerichs, and Bernhard von Langenbeck. On 9 August 1862 he received the M.D. with a thesis on spinal cord structure. In the following year he received his medical license and, after a three-year visit to South Africa (1863–1866), during which he indulged in anthropological and geographical investigations, worked as an assistant to the Berlin anatomist Karl B. Reichert. Fritsch passed his habilitation in anatomy in 1869. In the meantime he had accompanied the Prussian solar eclipse expedition to Aden and had made a tour of Egypt. His photographic skill was valuable on these expeditions, and in Egypt he studied electric fishes.

After serving in the army during the Franco-Prussian War and winning the Iron Cross, Fritsch was appointed extraordinary professor of comparative anatomy under Reichert in 1874 but soon left to join the Prussian Venus expedition to Isfahan, Persia; he also visited Smyrna, where he made a comparative study of the fish brain, published in 1878. He now found working space in the Institute of Pathology, and Emil du Bois-Reymond created a position for him as chief of histology and photography in the department of physiology. Du Bois-Reymond revived Fritsch’s interest in electric fishes, and these studies took him again to Africa.

After du Bois-Reymond retired, Fritsch worked under his successor, Theodor Wilhelm Engelmann; now, however, his interests changed to physical anthropology, in which field he again exploited his ability as a photographer. When Engelmann retired, the new director, Max Rubner, also had interests which did not coincide with Fritsch’s. His friends Wilhelm Waldeyer and Adolf Fick gave him working accommodations in the Anatomy Institute. Fritsch retired in 1921, and before his death his vision became impaired by chemical trauma. In 1893 he had been made a member of the medical privy council and in 1899 an honorary ordinary professor.

Fritsch married the daughter of the University of Breslau’s publisher, Ferdinand Hirt, in 1871. His financial independence, partly the result of this union, allowed him to indulge in activities which would otherwise have been impossible for him.

As Haller has pointed out, Fritsch belonged to the Kretschmer cyclothymic personality group. He demonstrated the many-sidedness of his character and his mental agility by working in several areas of science as well as having interests outside science. He had the characteristic tendency to collect data omnivorously and multisensorily but also a strong dislike of systematized and nonempirical methods. Philosophical and metaphysical subjects were avoided, and he preferred to deal with practical rather than theoretical issues. Fritsch’s energy was immense, and he was happy only when active. This urge to create and to act, together with his independence of mind, made it difficult for him to accept the fact that his academic advancement had not gone beyond the level of extraordinary professor.

Fritsch’s most important contribution to the medical sciences was his study of the electrophysiology of the brain. With Eduard Hitzig he published an epochal paper that established the existence of functional localization in the cerebral cortex of the dog (1870). Although the phrenologists had made similar claims at the beginning of the nineteenth century and such clinicians as Jean-Baptiste Bouillaud. Pierre-Paul Broca, and J. Hughlings Jackson had supported the concept of cerebral localization in the 1806’s, Fritsch and Hitzig provided the first incontrovertible experimental evidence for it. They opened up a vast new field of cerebral physiology which is still being studied. Hitzig continued his interest in this subject but Fritsch did not, although his work on the electric fish contributed to the growing knowledge of electrophysiology.

Fritsch was a pioneer in photography, and throughout his life was a keen and able photographer. He applied his skill to photomicrography and stereoscopy in microscopic anatomy and also to other aspects of his medical and anthropological work; he was much interested in the artistic concept of the human figure. Fritsch was also a coeditor of the periodical Internationale photographische Monatsschrift für Medizin und Naturwissenschaften, which began publication at Leipzig in 1896.

Much of his work in anthropology and ethnology revolved about the concept of racial dominance Fritsch believed that racial variations in visual acuity existed, and his 1908 book dealt with the “fovea” or area centralis” (his terms). He also wrote a book on human anatomy for the anthropologist, as well as one on the physical features of the modern Egyptian. His last major publication, which appeared in 1912, dealt with the anthropological significance of scalp hair.


I. Original Works. Fritsch’s work in physiology includes “Ueber die elektrische Erregbarkeit des Grosshirns,” in Archiv für Anatomie und physiologie, 1 (1870), 300–332, written with Eduard Hitzig, English trans. in G. Von Bonin, The Cerebral Cortex (Springfiled, III., 1960), pp. 72–96.

On anatomy and zoology he wrote De medulla spinalis textura (Berlin, 1862), his M.D. inaugural dissertation (not seen); “Zur vergleichenden Anatomie der Amphibienherzen,” in Archiv für Anatomie und physiologie, 1 (1869), 654–758, his Habilitationsschrift; Ueber das stereoskopische Sehen im Mikrotypien aufphotographischen Wege (Breslau, 1872); and Untersuchungen über den feinern Bau des Fischgehirns, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Homologien bei anderen Wirbelthierklassen (Berlin, 1878) were on his work carried out in Smyrna. See Herrick (1892), below, for titles of other publications in several fields.

Electric fish are the subject of “Vorläufiger Bericht über die von Prof. Gustav Fritsch in Aegypten angestellten neuen Untersuchungen an elektrischen Fischen,” in Archiv für Anatomie und Physiologie, Physiologische Abteilung, 2 (1882), 61–75, 307–413, based on letters from South Africa; Die elektrische Fische im Lichte der Descendenslehre (Berlin, 1884); Sitzungsberichte der K. Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin (1885), no. 1, 119–129, and (1891, no. 2, 941–970, reports from Africa on electric fish; Die elektrische Fische: I. Malapterurus (Leipzig, 1887); and Die elektrische Fische. II. Torpede (Leipig, 1890).

Books on anthropology are Drei Jahre in Südafrika (Breslau, 1868), his first book on Africa, which included anthropology, zoology, and botany; Die Eingeboreen Südafrika’s ethnologisch und anatomisch beschrieben (Breslau), an account of native races of South Africa with numerous portraits and color plates; Süd-Africa bis zum Zambesi (Leipzig, 1885); Die Gestalt des Menschen (Stuttgart, 1893; 2nd ed., 1905), human anatomy for anthropologists; Aegyptische Volkstypen der Jetztzeit (Wiesbaden, 1904); Ueber Bau und Bedeutung der Area centralis des Menschen (Berlin, 1908); and Die Haupthaar und seine Bildungstätte bei den Rassen des Menschen (Berlin, 1912).

II. Secondary Liteature. The best biography of Fritsch is Graf Haller, “Gustav Fritsch zum Gedächtnis,” in Anatomischer Anzeiger, 64 (1927), 257–269. See also “Neurologists and Neurological Laboratories—No. 1. Professor Gustav Fritsch,” in Journal of Comparative Neurology, 2 (1892), 84–88, probably by C. L. Herrick; C. Benda, “Gustav Fritsch zum 70. Geburtstage,” in Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift, 34 (1908), 605–606; and “Gustav Fritsch †,” ibid., 53 (1927), 1273, with portrait; “Death of Gustav Fritsch,” in Journal of the American Medical Association, 89 (1927), 635; R. du Bois-Reymond, “Nachruf auf Gustav Fritsch,” in Medizinische Klinik, 23 (1927), 1047–1048; and H. Grundfest, “The Different Careers of Gustav Fritsch (1838–1927),” in Journal of the History of Medicine, 18 (1963), 125–129 (with portrait), which contains several errors.

Edwin Clarke