Meissner, Georg

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(b. Hannover, Germany, 19 November 1829; d. Göttingen, Germany, 30 March 1905)

anatomy, physiology.

Meissner was the son of a senior law-court official, Adolf Meissner. As a student he displayed only average talents, his wish to study medicine becoming strong only during his last years at school. After passing the final examination, he left school in the spring of 1849. He began to study medicine at Göttingen in the summer term of 1849. There he had a fatherly friend and patron in Rudolph Wagner, who was professor of physiology, comparative anatomy, and zoology. While still a student Meissner took an active part in Wagner’s investigations in anatomy and, especially, in microscopy. At Göttingen he became a lifelong friend of Theodor Billroth. The two were united by their great low for music and by their interest in microscopic anatomy. In the autumn of 1851 Meissner and Billroth accompanied Wagner on a research expedition to Trieste, in order to investigate the origins and endings of the nerves in the torpedo. Meissner provided the drawings, which were printed by Wagner in his Icones physiologicae. The expedition was also concerned with analyzing the electrical organ of the torpedo. At Trieste, Meissner became acquainted with Johannes Müller, whom he esteemed highly. It was also in 1851 that Meissner conducted intensive comparative microscopic investigations on the cells and fibers of the nervus acusticus. In 1852 he studied the tactile corpuscles of the skin which today bear his name. The results were first published under the names of Wagner and Meissner; but in Meissner’s doctoral thesis the same results were again published, this time under his name alone, as Beiträge zur Anatomie und Physiologic der Haut (Leipzig, 1853), and a fierce controversy over priority ensued between Wagner and Meissner.

After finishing his studies in the spring of 1853, Meissner went to Berlin to attend the lectures of Johannes Müller and Lukas Schönlein. In April 1853 he left for Munich to attend the lectures of Siebold, Emil Harless, and Liebig. In August he there received a letter from Wagner, who claimed the discovery of the tactile cells for his own and demanded a public resolution of the matter. Meissner rejected this proposal politely but firmly, and bad feeling between teacher and pupil persisted until 1859.

In 1855, at the age of twenty-six, Meissner was appointed full professor of anatomy and physiology at the University of Basel. Two years later he accepted a professorship of physiology, zoology, and histology at the University of Freiburg in Breisgau. At Freiburg he married the daughter of the mineralogist and poet Franz Ritter von Kobell; they had two sons.

In 1859 Wagner and Meissner were reconciled. Wagner, who until then had held the joint chair of physiology, comparative anatomy, and zoology, turned over his duties in physiology to Meissner, who thus became the first occupant of the separate chair of physiology at Göttingen. He took office after Easter of 1860 and held the chair until 1901, when he retired because of asthma.

He also was not very sociable. His lectures on physiology, which were illustrated by many experiments, were always well prepared and vivid. Here his talent for drawing, especially for microscopic drawings, served him well.

The number of Meissner’s publications is not great. Those composed between 1853 and 1858 dealt chiefly with problems of microscopy, especially as related to the skin (Meissner’s tactile cells). In 1857 he described the submucosal nerve plexus of the intestinal wall, which is now called Meissner’s plexus. After 1858 he wrote largely on physiological-chemical problems. He was mainly concerned with the nature and the decomposition of protein compounds in the digestive system. The results of his investigations, undertaken alone as well as with collaborators, were published in Zeitschrift für rationelle Medizin, edited by his friend Jakob Henle. In 1861 Meissner constructed a new electrometer, a mirror galvanometer. The ensuing electrophysiological investigations led him to propose a new theory concerning the generation of electric potentials through the deformation of biological tissues. This suggestion provoked a devastating critique in 1867 by Emil du Bois-Reymond, the Nestor of electrophysiology. Meissner’s experiments on protein also failed to meet with recognition. He was so offended that after 1869 he published nothing more under his own name. His collaborators included Carl Büttner, Friedrich Jolly, Heinrich Boruttau, Otto Weiss, and Karl Flügge. The bacteriologist Robert Koch was among his pupils.


I. Original Works. Meissner’s memoirs are listed in the Royal Society CatalIV, 326 –327; andogue of Scientific Papers, IV, 326327; and VIII, 375. His writings include Über das Vorhandensein bisher unbekannter eigentülicher Tastkörperchen (Corpusada tactus) in den Gefühlswärzchen der menschlichen Haut und über die Endausbreitung sensitiver Nerven (Göttingen, 1852), written with R. Wagner; Beiträge zur Anatomiegvrs Archiv für die gesamte Physiologic und Physiologie der Haut (Leipzig, 1853); “über die Nerven der Darmwand,” in Zeitschrift für rationelle Medizin, n.s. 8 (1857), 364–366; “über die Verdauung der Eiweisskörper,” ibid., 3rd ser. 7 (1859), 1–26; 8 (1859), 280–303; 10 (1860), 1–32; 12 (1861), 46–67, written with C. Büttner; 14 (1862), 78–96, 303–319, written with L. Thiry; “Zur Kenntnis des elektrischen Verhaltens des Muskels,” ibid., 12 (1861), 344–353; “über das Entstehen der Bernsteinsäure im tierischen Stoffwechsel,” ibid., 24 (1865), 97–112, written with F. Jolly; and Untersuchungen über das Entstehen der Hippursäureim tierischen Organismus (Hannover, 1866), written with C. K. Shepard.

II. Secondary Literature. See Heinrich Boruttau, “Zum Andenken an Georg Meissner,” in Pflügers Archiv für die gesamte Physiologie …, 110 (1905), 351–399, with portrait and bibliography; Otto Damsch, “Georg Meissner† in Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift, 31 (1905), 758– 759; Gottfried Müller, Georg Meissner sein Leben uml seine Werke (Düscldorf, 1935), especially for letters to Wagner; Gernot Rath, “Georg Meissners Tagebuch seiner Triestreise (1851),” in Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschiehfe der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, 38 (1954), 129 164; and Otto Weiss, “Georg Meissner,” in Münehener medizinische Wochenschrift, 52 (1905), 1206–1207.

See also Walter son Brunn, ed., Jugendlbriefe Theodor Billroths an Georg Meissner(Leipzig, 1941).

K. E. Rothschuh

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Meissner, Georg

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