Meckel, Johann Friedrich

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(b. Halle, German,13 October 1781; d. Halle, 31 October 1833)

anatomy, embryology, comparative anatomy.

Belonging to the third generation of an illustrious family of physicians, Meckel was one of the greatest anatomists of his time. His painstaking observations in comparative and pathological anatomy furnished a wealth of new knowledge, which Meckel attempted to organize along certain evolutionary schemes popular in his day.

Although influenced by the contemporary ideas of Naturphilosophie, Meckel rejected pure speculation and stressed instead the acquisition of empirical data from which certain useful conclusions could be derived. Among his most lasting and impressive contributions was the study of the abnormalities occurring during the embryological development. Hence, Meckel’s teratology was the first comprehensive description of birth defects, a detailed and sober analysis of a topic which had hitherto been approached with a great deal of fantasy and moral bias.

Meckel’s grandfather, Johann Friedrich the Elder (1714–1774), had been one of Haller’s most brilliant disciples, an anatomist endowed with great powers of observation and notable skill in the preparation of anatomical specimens. In turn Meckel’s father, Phillip Friedrich (1755–1803), was a famous surgeon and obstetrician in Halle, where he taught for twenty-six years.

Young Meckel spent his student years between 1798 and 1801 in Halle, then a bastion of academic freedom and objective scientific inquiry. Among his teachers were Kurt Sprengel, famous for his botanical and historical studies, and, above all, his mentor Johann C. Reil, who inspired Meckel’s studies in cerebral anatomy and was the true leader of the local medical school.

After studying anatomy under the direction of his father—he apparently detested the discipline in the beginning—Meckel transferred in 1801 to the University of Göttingen. There he studied comparative anatomy with the famous physician and anthropologist Blumenbach. His subsequent doctoral dissertation, defended at Halle in 1802, dealt with the subject of cardiac malfunctions. Meckel expanded the topic and eventually published it as an article in Reil’s journal, the Archiv für die Physiologie.

Following his graduation Meckel visited Würzburg, then a stronghold of Schelling’s philosophy of nature, and Vienna, where he met Johann P. Frank. In 1803 Meckel temporarily interrupted his travels, returning to Halle at his father’s death. Thereafter he went to Paris where he met and worked with Georges Cuvier, étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and Alexander von Humboldt. Together with Cuvier, Meckel systematically analyzed the immense anatomical collection located at the Jardin des Plantes. The available material, sent back from Napoleon’s campaigns abroad, was described by Cuvier in his Leçons d’anatomie comparée. Meckel translated Cuvier’s fivevolume work into German, a task which he completed in 1810.

Meckel returned to his native Halle in 1806 under tragic circumstances. The Napoleonic forces had occupied the city and dissolved the local university. Napoleon used Meckel’s own home as temporary headquarters, an intrusion which may have aided in preserving the valuable anatomical collection of the Meckel family.

When the newly organized University of Halle opened its doors in May 1808, Meckel was appointed professor of normal and pathological anatomy, surgery, and obstetrics. He was at Halle until his death and set a harsh working schedule for himself. He gradually withdrew from social activities and grew bitter in the face of the academic mediocrity surrounding him. Furthermore, Meckel was impatient with the bureaucratic fetters imposed by the Prussian government, which treated Halle as a secondary and provincial city compared to the capital, Berlin.

Meckel’s scientific aim was to arrive at an understanding of the great variety of organic forms. Such knowledge would, he hoped, reveal the uniformity of nature and expose its general laws. Meckel sought fundamental types amid the multiplicity of organisms, and accepted the idea that each higher evolutionary product must have traversed all the lower stages of development before achieving its position.

Moreover, Meckel adopted an Aristotelian position by clearly distinguishing between matter and form, the latter being provided by the Lebenskraft. His morphological studies were, therefore, geared to discovering the fundamental laws regulating the formation of the various organic categories. Meckel was interested in malformations because structural aberrations were the result of normal actions attributable to the vital force, which he tried to understand.

Meckel achieved such insights through exhaustive observations rather than arm-chair philosophy — witness his three-volume Handbuch der pathologischen Anatomie (1812–1816) and six-volume System der vergleichenden Anatomie (1821–1831). Among Meckel’s discoveries was the diverticulum—which now carries his name—in the distal small bowel, a vestige between the intestinal tract and the yolk sac.

In 1815 Meckel became the editor of Reil’s journal, then known as Deutsches Archiv für die Physiologie, which listed among its distinguished collaborators Autenrieth, Blumenbach, Döllinger, Kielmeyer, Sprengel, and others. Meckel wrote a preface to the first volume stressing that only articles based on observations and experiments would be printed. He hoped that such an approach would gradually prevail in German science in order to obviate the ridicule incurred by speculation. But Meckel also decried mindless experimentation.

Meckel emphasized the need for work in comparative anatomy and embryology. An early article concerned the development of the central nervous system in mammals, a study followed by new observations related to the evolution of the gut, heart, and lungs. Interspersed with these careful monographs were numerous shorter articles. They covered subject matters as varied as the generation of earthworms, bleeding diatheses, development of human teeth, and the cerebral anatomy of birds.

From 1826 until his death, Meckel was the editor of the Archiv für Anatomie und Physiologie, a continuation of the previous publication. His last articles dealt to a considerable degree with malformations as well as with vascular and pulmonary development.

Meckel’s adherence to a Lebenskraft or vital force and denial of mechanical factors in embryological development were strongly disputed by successors who viewed life in strict physicochemical terms. Although his interpretations rapidly became obsolete, Meckel’s material remained an extremely valuable source for those interested in comparative anatomy and in congenital malformations.


I. Original Works. A complete bibliography of Meckel’s works, prepared in a chronological order, is in Beneke (see below), pp. 155–159. Meckel’s work on comparative anatomy is contained in his Beyträge zur vergleichenden Anatomie, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1808–1812), and the more extensive publication, System der vergleichenden Anatomie, 6 vols, (Halle, 1821–1831). He also published a large number of articles which can be found in the Deutsches Archiv für die Physiologie, 1–8 (1815–1823) and the Archiv für Anatomie und Physiologie, 1–6 (1826–1832).

Among those works of Meckel available in English is the Manual of General Anatomy, translated from a French version by A. S. Doane (London, 1837), and the Manual of Descriptive and Pathological Anatomy, also from the French by the same English translator, 2 vols. (London, 1838).

II. Secondary Literature. The only extensive biography of Meckel is Rudolf Beneke, Johann Friedrich Meckel der Jüngere (Halle, 1934). Shorter notices appeared in the Medicinische Wochenschrift für Hamburg, 1 (1833), as well as in August Hirsch’s Biographisches Lexikon, 2nd ed., IV (Munich. 1932), 145–146, A recent article reviewing Meckel’s interest in birth defects is Owen E. Clark, “The Contributions of J. F. Meckel, the Younger, to the Science of Teratology,” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 24 (1969), 310–322. A short description of the genealogy of the Meckel family and the collection of their skulls is contained in H. Schierhorn and R. Schmidt, “Beitrag zur Genealogie und Kraniologie der Familie Meckel,” in “Verhandlungen der anatomischen Gesellschaft Jena, 63 (1969), 591–599. The conceptual background for the contemporary German interest in embryology is given by Owsei Temkin, “German Concepts of Ontogeny and History Around 1800,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 24 (1950), 227–246.

Guenter B. Risse