Kleinenberg, Nicolaus (Nicolai)

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Kleinenberg, Nicolaus (Nicolai)

(b. Liepaja, Russia, 11 March 1842; d. Naples, Italy, 5 November 1897)


Kleinenberg was the son of Friedrich Kleinenberg, a municipal official. He studied medicine from 1860 to 1867 at the University of Dorpat, but botany became his primary interest. In 1863-1864 he attended the lectures of Matthias Jacob Schleiden. To further his botanical education he went to Jena in 1868, to study with Ernst Hallier. He soon came under the influence of Ernst Haeckel and became closely involved with Anton Dohrn, Ernst Abbe, and Karl Snell. In 1869 and 1870 Kleinenberg was an assistant to Haeckel at the Zoological institute. During this period he prepared his dissertation, on the development of the freshwater polyp. He received his doctorate in 1871, having passed the oral examination on 5 January 1869.

In 1873 Anton Dohrn persuaded Kleinenberg to go to Naples to help him establish the first marine biological station. At first, he was very close to Dohrn, even accompanying him on a vacation in St. Moritz. The Stazione Zoologica di Napoli opened in October 1873. Kleinenberg, along with the English writer Charles Grant and the artists Hans von Marées and Adolf von Hildebrand, belonged to the first intimate circle around Dohrn (which is portrayed in the famous frescoes by von Marées in the library of the station at Naples). Yet Kleinenberg possessed certain character traits that led him to give up his assistant’s post as early as 1875. For the next few years he lived on the island of Ischia, and he remained in Italy until his death. In 1879 he was appointed, principally through the intercession of Dohrn, to the chair of zoology and comparative anatomy at the University of Messina. In 1895 he became professor of the same subjects at Palermo.

Although considered an original and versatile scientist, Kleinenberg was a difficult person and unsuited to teamwork because of pride and a strong need for independence. Descriptions of his personality can be found in Theodor Heuss’s work on Anton Dohrn and in the biography of Ernst Abbe by Felix Auerbach. Like other students of Haeckel—such as Dohen, Oscar Hertwig, and Hans Driesch—Kleinenberg soon found himself sharply opposing his teacher, especially the latter’s ideologically interpreted Darwinism. Kleinenberg became friendly with one of the first visiting scientists at the Naples station, the young English physiologist Francis Maitland Balfour, and translated a textbook on embryology to whichBalfour had made a major contribution, Michael Foster’s The Elements of Embryology (London, 1874), a description of the development of the chick embryo. In the translator’s preface he makes a criticism of scientific journalism that is interesting in the context of the period. He also characteristically includes a philosophical and epistemological excursus.

Kleinenberg’s actual scientific work in zoology is not extensive. His dissertation of 1871 contains a chapter (“Die Furchung des Eies von Hydra. Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis der Plasmabewegungen”) from Hydra. Eine anatomisch-entwicklungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung, one of his two publications that are still of interest. Kleinenberg dedicated this work, the first detailed investigation of the development of the freshwater polyp, to Haeckel. In it he also took up the then very important theoretical question of the comparability, from the ontogenetic point of view, of the coelenterate ectoderm and endoderm with those of the vertebrate. He began by establishing the correspondence—postulated by Huxley in 1849—of the physiological functions of both germinal layers in these phyla.

In 1881 Kleinenberg published a first report on the embryology of the polychaete Lopadorhynchus. His comprehensive “Die Entstehung des Annelids aus der Larve von Lopadorhynchus. Nebst Bemerkungen über die Entwicklung anderer Polychaeten” appeared in 1886. The author wished “to evaluate the development of an animal according to new principles” and presented a “justification” of this endeavor in the first chapter, “Etwas von den Keimblättern”. In a vigorous controversy in which Kleinenberg disputed Haeckel’s gastraea theory—of which a Kernel of truth stemmed from Huxley—and the views concerning the early development of animals held by R. Hertwig, A. von Kölliker, W. His, and B. Hatscheck, he sought to show that there was no mesoderm. This meant, in effect, demonstrating that “a reasonable [verständiges] system of tissues is possible only on a physiological basis”. Kleinenberg thus belonged, like Alexander Goette, to the group of zoologists who wished to give up the purely phylogenetic evaluation of embryological processes in favor of a physiological approach. The latter ultimately led to the evolutionary physiology of W. Roux.

Kleinenberg again discussed the theoretical standpoint of ontogenetic research in the final chapter of “Die Entstehung …” This time the problem under consideration was the origin of organs performing similar functions—for example, among animals that exhibit metamorphosis. In this context Kleinenberg set forth his “substitution theory”, with which he entered the dispute over the concept of homology. He drew attention to organ systems which develop by the substitution of organs which are unrelated from the point of view of embryological development —interpreted either ontogenetically or phylogenetically. The example he used was that of the larval and imaginal nervous systems of the polychaetes. The significance of Kleinenberg’s distinction between homology and substitution has been emphasized by Adolf Remane in his discussion of the concept and criteria of homology in Die Grundlagen des natürlichen Systems, der vergleichenden Anatomie und der Phylogenetik (Leipzig, 1952).

Kleinenberg paid tribute to the work of Charles Darwin in a short piece published in the year of the latter’s death. Besides the translation of Balfour and Foster’s embryological text, Kleinenberg produced a German translation of Foster’s textbook of physiology. He also published a work on the difference between art and science.


I. Original Works. Kleinenber’s writings include Die Furchung des Eies von Hydra viridis. Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis der Plasmabewegungen (Jena, 1871), his dissertation; Hydra. Eine anatomisch-entwicklungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung (Leipzig, 1872); Sullo sviluppo des Lumbricus trapezoides (Naples, 1878), also in English in Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, 19 (1879), 206-244; “Über die Entstehung der Eier bei Eudendrium,” in Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Zoologie, 35 (1881), 326-332; Carlo Darwin e I’opera sua (Messina, 1882); “Die Entstehung des Annelids aus der Larve von Lopadorhynchus. Nebst Bemerkungen über die Entwicklung anderer Polychaeten”, in Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Zoologie, 44 (1886), 1-227; Intorno alla differenza essenziale fra arte a scienza (Messina, 1892); “Sullo sviluppo del sistema nervoso periferico nei Molluschi”, in Monitore zoologico italiano, 5 (1894), 75; and Cenno biografico e catalogo delle opere di Pietro Doderlein (Palermo, 1896).

His translations are of Michael Foster and F. M. Balfour, Grundzüge der Entwicklungsgeschichte der Thiere (Leipzig, 1876); and Michael Foster, Lehrbuch der Physiologie (Heidelberg, 1881), with aforeword by W. Kühne.

II. Secondary Literature. An obituary is Paul Mayer, in Anatomischer Anzeiger, 14 (1898), 267-271. See also Felix Auerbach, Ernst Abbe. Sein Leben, sein Wirken, seine Persönlichkeit (Leipzig, 1918); Theodor Heuss, Anton Dohrn in Neapel (Berlin-Zürich, 1940; 2nd ed., Stuttgart-Tübingen, 1948); and Georg Uschmann, Geschichte der Zoologie und der zoologischen Anstalten in Jena 1779-1919 (Jena, 1959).

Hans Querner

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