Retzius, Magnus Gustaf

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(b. Stockholm, Sweden, 17 October 1842; d. Stockholm, 21 July 1919)

anatomy, histology, anthropology.

Retzius came from a famous family of Swedish scientists. His grandfather, Anders Johan Retzius (1742–1821), was professor of natural history at the University of Lund and did distinguished work in chemistry, botany, zoology, mineralogy, and paleontology. His father, Anders Adolf Retzius, professor of anatomy at the Karolinska Institutet, achieved fame as an anatomist and anthropologist. His father’s older brother, Magnus Christian Retzius (1795–1871), was a hygienist and professor of obstetrics at the Karolinska Institutet. Anders Retzius remarried in 1835; his second wife, the mother of Gustav Retzius, was Emilia Sofia Wahlberg, sister of the botanist and entomologist Peter Frederik Wahlberg.

After attending the Gymnasium in Stockholm, Retzius began to study medicine at age eighteen, first in Uppsala and later in Stockholm. He received his doctorate from the University of Lund in 1871 and in the same year became a Dozent in anatomy at the Karolinska Institutet. In 1862, 1869,and 1872–1873,he traveled in England, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, France, Finland, and Russia to increase his knowledge. In 1877 a personal extraordinary professorship of histology was created for Retzius at the Karolinska Institutet. He was promoted to full professor of anatomy in 1889, but he resigned in 1890 to devote himself full time to pure research.

In 1876 Retzius married Anna Wilhelmina Hierta (1841–1924), daughter of the founder of the Stockholm Aftonbladet. She was an exceptionally active woman who, among other things, promoted medical education for women. The marriage not only brought Retzius the financial independence he sought for his scientific endeavors; it also provided him with an opportunity to demonstrate his wide-ranging interests in literature as temporary editor of the Aftonbladet. His literary efforts included travel descriptions, prize-winning collections of poems, and translations of the poems of Robert Burns into Swedish (1872).

The number and scope of Retzius’ scientific publications were unique in his time. He presented the results of his research in more than 300 papers devoted to descriptive macroscopic and microscospie anatomy, comparative anatomy, embryology, anthropology, zoology, botany, and pathological anatomy. Retzius was very concerned with the presentation of his illustrations. Although the format he selected for his publications—large folio volumes—was very costly, it allowed him to furnish a synoptic view of his carefully executed drawings by means of unfolded plates. Most of his papers were in the new series of Biologische Untersuchungen (1890–1914). “These investigations constituted a kind of personal journal in which the editor was alone responsible for the costs, was the sole contributor, and usually the draftsman as well. Within its field this publication was unique…. As soon as Retzius had brought out one volume he began work on a new one” (C. M. Fürst, Biologische Untersuchungen [Jena, 1921], 7). lie wrote in German “because at present the science of anatomy is studied most intensively in Germany, and as a result the terminology is most developed in this language,” and “because in order to be of use, such specialized scientific studies must seek to reach a broader audience than works written in Swedish would find” (Retzius, in C. M. Fürst, Biologische Untersuchungen [Jena, 1921], 11).

Besides works that were accessible to only a few (predominantly foreign) specialists, Retzius coauthored a series of popular scientific works under the general title Ur car this forskning (from 1872). His collaborator was his friend Axel Key (1832–1901), a pathologist. The series filled the public’s need for reliable information about science.

His research brought Retzius numerous honors, both in Sweden and abroad. The two-volume Studien in der Anatomic des Nervensystems und des Bindegewebes (1875–1876) that he wrote with Key won the Prix Montyon of the French Académic des Sciences. Through his election to the Swedish Academy and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Retzius became a member of the committee that awarded the Nobel prizes in literature and physiology or medicine. He was also an honorary member of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and the Royal Anthropological Institute. Retzius received honorary doctorates from Bologna (1888), Uppsala (1893), Harvard, Würzburg, and Budapest (1896).

Retzius’ did work on the nervous system (central nervous system and its membranes, nerve cells and nerve fibers, sense organs—receptors of the external skin, odor, and taste receptors, the eye and ear); cells and cell division; bones, cartilage, connective tissue, and muscle tissue: the liver and the spleen; the ovum and its coverings; spermatozoa; embryology; anthropology and ethnography; methods in anatomical research; and on such miscellaneous topics as history of science, Swedenborg as anatomist and physiologist of the brain (1903), Linnaeus (1907), and an edition of the letters of Johannes Müller to Anders Retzius.

The bulk of Retzius, writings were devoted to neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. Their direct influence on contemporary work can be seen from the wealth of citations to them in, for example, the publications of Louis Ranvier (Traite technique d’histologie [1882]), S. Ramón y Cajal (1899). and K. Gegenbaur (in his comparative vertebrate anatomy [1898]). The development of experimental neurophysiology owed much to Retzius’ study of microscopic structure, particularly of the conducting elements of the nerves and their sheaths (1876) but also of the sensory nerve endings. Given the limitations of the light microscope, Retzius advanced this study as far as was possible at the time. Even as late as 1950, when R. Lorentc De Nó provoked a debate on the ineffectiveness of the nerve sheaths as diffusion barriers, most researchers found it necessary to refer to the still-authoritative investigations of Key and Retzius. Retzius’ application of Golgi’s silver nitrate method and, especially, of Paul Ehrlich’s methylene blue dyeing method for nerve structures led to a further differentiation of the cellular elements and of the sensitive nerve endings in various classes of animals. On the basis of his own research Retzius became one of the early proponents of the neuron theory.

Further contributions that Retzius made to knowledge of the central nervous system include the description of the eminentia saccularis on the tuber cinereum, of the corpus amygdaloideum, amygdaloid nucleus, and of previously unnoticed convolutions in the rhinencephalon (in honor of his father he named these Retzius’ gyri ). Especially notable, according to Waldeyer, was Retzius’ discovery of the significance of the Pacchionian bodies: through them, by means of a valve arrangement, the lymphatic fluids of the brain pass into the sinus of the dura mater.

Among Retzius’ papers in anatomy and embryology, the most important were devoted to the process of bone formation (including the demonstration of the mitotic division of the cartilage cells) and to comparative studies. In the latter he dealt with the ape brain, the brains of many other types of animals, the comparative anatomy of the ear labyrinth, the development of the form of the human body during the fetal period, and the structure of spermatozoa (the many forms of which he documented in masterful illustrations).

Retzius’ work in anthropology included observations of the Lapps of northern Finland; descriptions of ancient Swedish, Finnish, and Indian skulls; and anthropometric measurements of Swedish conscripts. He attempted to establish a correlation between brain structure and talent. As part of his effort to do this he described the brains of five people endowed with exceptional intellectual gifts: an unnamed statesman, the astronomer Hugo Gylden (1841–1896), the physicist Siljeström (1815–1892), the physiologist Otto Loven (1835–1904), and the mathematician Sonya Kovalevsky (1850–1891). Finally, he investigated 100 brains to determine if those of men and women differ in macroscopic structure. Among the women’s brains he found fewer deviations from the principal type; on the other hand, no arrangement of the furrows and convolutions was found to be more characteristic of one sex than of the other. At the request of his wife, Retzils’ own brain was examined at the Karolinska Institutet.


I. Original Works. A list of “all the scientific works” of Retzius, grouped by subject, is in n.s. 19 of Biologische Untersuchungen, C. M. Fürst, ed. (Jena, 1921), 92–100. The volume also contains an excellent portrait of Retzius and a chronologically ordered synopsis of the papers he published in Biologische Untersuchungen, n.s. 1–18 (Jena, 1890 1914), 84–90.

Retzius’ books include Anatomische Untersuchungen. Das Gehororgan der Knochenfische (Stockholm, 1872); Studien in der Anatomie des Nervensystems und des Binde-gewebes, 2 vols. (Stockholm, 1875–1876), written with Axel Key; Finska kranier j1872mte nagra natur- och literatur-studier inom andra omraden af finsk anthropologi (Stockholm, 1878); Finland i nordiska museet (Helsinki, 1881); Das Gehororgan der Wirbelthiere, 2 vols. (Stockholm, 1881–1884); Das menschenhirn. Studien in der makroskopischen Morphologie, 2 vols. (Stockholm, 1896); Crania suecica antiqua (Stockholm, 1899), in Swedish— also in German, with same Latin title (Stockholm, 1900); Anthropologia suecica (Stockholm, 1902), written with Carl M. Fürst; and Cerebra simiarum illustrata. Das Affenhirn in bildlicher Darstellung (Stockholm, 1906).

Retzius edited Ethnologische Schriften von Anders Retzius (Stockholm, 1864), for which he provided a foreword and notes; Briefe von Johannes Muller an Anders Retzius (Stockholm, 1900). which covers 1830–1857; and Skrifter i skilda amnen Jamte nagra bref, af Anders Retzius (Stockholm, 1902), for which he provided an introduction.

II. Secondary Literature. See C. M. Fürst, “Gustaf Retzius,” in Mannus, 11–12 (1919–1920), 433–435; and introduction to Biologische Untersuchungen, n.s. 19 (Jena, 1921); H. Hofberg, ed., Svensk biografisk hand-lexikon, II (Stockholm, 1906), 329–332; O. Larscll, “Gustaf Retzius 1842–1919,” in Scientific Monthly, 10 (1920), 559–569; U. Nilsonne and S. Lindmann, “Magnus Gustaf Retzius,” in Svenska man och kvinnor, VI (Stockholm, 1949), 296–297; E. Nordenskiold, “Retzius,” in V. Söderberg, ed., Nordisk familjebok, 16 (1932), 686–687; H, Östberg, “Om Gustaf Retzius och hans verk,” in Nordisk medicin-historisk årsbok (1971), 200–208; L. Ribbing, “Scandinavian Anthropology in the 20th Century,” in H. Lundborg and F. I. Linders, eds.. The Racial Characters of the Swedish Nation (Uppsala, 1926), 5; H. Spatz, “Die vergleichende Morphologie des Gehirns vor und nach Ludwig Edinger,” in Edinger-Gedenkschrift (Wiesbaden, 1959); J. H. Talbott, “Magnus Gustaf Retzius (1842–1919),” in A Biographical History of Medicine (New York-London, 1970), 934–936; and W. von Waldeyer-Hartz, “Gustaf Retzius,” in Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift, 45 (1919), 942–943.

Gerhard Rudolph