Gleichen-Russworm, Wilhelm Friedrich von

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Gleichen-Russworm, Wilhelm Friedrich von

(b. Bayreuth, Germany, 14 January 1717; d. Schloss Greifenstein, Bonnland, Hammelburg, Germany, 16 June 1783)


Gleichen-Russworm was the elder son of Heinrich von Gleichen and Caroline von Russworm. He received little formal education and in 1734, after some years as a page at the court of Prince Thurn und Taxis in Frankfurt, he decided to make his career in the forces of the margrave of Bayreuth. He married Antoinette Heidloff in 1753 and they had seven children, of whom only two daughters survived to adulthood. Gleichen-Russworm remained in the army until 1756, when he resigned his commission in order to devote himself to the management of the Greifenstein estates, inherited from his mother in 1748.

His first published writings appeared after his departure from Bayreuth, in the periodical Fränkische Sammlung aus der Naturlehre, Arzneigelahrtheit, Ökonomie und der damit verbundenen Wissenschaften; they deal, inter alia, with natural history, physics, and chemistry but are, for the most part, quite fanciful. These articles involved Gleichen-Russworm in a certain amount of controversy, with the result that his subsequent writings were much less extravagant, although he did go on to publish, in 1782, a highly imaginative account of the origin and structure of the earth, which is now of interest only for its faint adumbration of evolutionary theory.

In the summer of 1760 Gleichen-Russworm made the acquaintance of Martin Ledermüller, who had already begun publication of his Mikroskopische Gemüths- und Augenergötzungen (1759–1762); it was this work which led Gleichen-Russworm to concentrate on microscopy. Ledermüller visited Schloss Greifenstein in 1762, and Gleichen-Russworm continued to benefit from his advice until the former took offense at certain criticisms of his work which appeared in Geschichte der gemeinen Stubenfliege (1764).

Gleichen-Russworm was particularly interested in the processes of fertilization in plants and animals, and in 1763 he published the first fascicle of Das neueste aus dem Reiche der Pflanzen. This work contains fifty-one colored plates illustrating numerous details of floral structure and various pollens; in addition, his interest in the construction of the microscope is reflected in the six plates devoted to the different modifications and accessories which he designed for the instrument. His account of the pollen of Asclepias syriaca L. in Auserlesene mikroskopische Entdeckungen (1777–1781) contains what appears to be the first observation of a pollen tube, although he remained unaware of its significance.

In 1778 Gleichen-Russworm made his most important contribution to science. In Abhandlung über die Saamen-und Infusionsthierchen he described the technique of phagocytic staining, which he had developed from earlier reports of the use of dyes as coloring agents for plant and animal tissues. In order to study the nutrition of a colony of ciliates, he added water colored with carmine and observed the subsequent staining of the food vacuoles, of which he provided an illustration. This technique did not become generally known until described by a number of nineteenth-century biologists, notably Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, Theodor Hartig, and Joseph von Gerlach.


I. Original Works. Gleichen-Russworm’s writings include Das neueste aus dem Reiche der Pflanzen, oder mikroskopische Untersuchungen und Beobachtungen der geheimen Zeugungstheile der Pflanzen in ihren Blüthen, und der in denselben befindlichen Insekten, 3 fascs. (Nuremberg, 1763–[?]1766); Geschichte der gemeinen Stubenfliege (Nuremberg, 1764); Auserlesene mikroskopische Entdeckungen bey den Pflanzen, Blumen und Blüthen, Insekten und andere Merkwürdigkeiten, 6 fascs. (Nuremberg, 1777–[?]1781); Abhandlung über die Saamen- und Infusionsthierchen, und über die Erzeugung; nebst mikroskopischen Beobachtungen des Saamens der Thiere, und verschiedener Infusionen (Nuremberg, 1778); and Von Entstehung, Bildung, Umbildung und Bestimmung des Erdkörpers (Dessau, 1782).

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Gleichen-Russworm’s life and career include (in chronological order): M. A. Weikard, Biographie des Herrn Wilhelm Friedrich von Gleichen (Frankfurt, 1783); Ascherson, “Wilhelm Friedrich von G. genannt Rusworm (Russworm),” in Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, IX (Leipzig, 1879), 226–228; Carl Willnau [Carl W. Naumann], Ledermüller und v. Glechen-Russworm. Zwei deutsche Mikroskopisten der Zopfzeit (Leipzig, 1926); John R. Baker, “The Discovery of the Uses of Colouring Agents in Biological Microtechnique,” in Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club, 4th ser., 1, no. 6 (1943), p. 12, rev. separate publication (London, 1945); Friedrich Klemm, “Wilhelm Friedrich Gleichen gen. v. Russwurm,” in Neue deutsche Biographie, VI (Berlin, 1964), 447–448; and Frans A. Stafleu, Taxonomic Literature (Utrecht–Zug, 1967), p. 172.

Michael E. Mitchell