Schmiedeberg, (Johann Ernst) Oswald

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(b. Laidsen, Russia, 10 October 1838; d. Baden-;Baden, Germany, 12 July 1921)


Schmiedeberg was the son of a forester in the German Baltic province of Kurland (which later became a part of Latvia). He attended school in Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonian S.S.R.), an old Germanic town in the province of Livonia (later part of Estonia), and received a medical degree from the University of Dorpat, then an imperial Russian university at which the largely German faculty taught their courses in the German language.

Rudolf Buchheim, who founded the first institute of experimental pharmacology in 1847, had a profound influence on Schmiedeberg, who worked in his institute in 1866 while completing a dissertation dealing with the measurement of chloroform in blood. He continued his studies with Buchheim and two years later was appointed assistant professor in pharmacology.

Buchheim was a pioneer in a science that was not considered important by the medical profession and received little attention in the major European medical schools for many years. In 1869, when offered a professorship in pharmacology at the University of Giessen, he accepted but was hampered in developing his discipline. He left the University of Giessen in 1871 and died, disillusioned, in 1879. When he left Dorpat, Schmiedeberg was appointed to his chair.

Schmiedeberg took a year’s leave in 1871 to work in Carl Ludwig’s institute of physiology at Leipzig, where he sharpened his skills in medical research and made contacts with colleagues who would have important roles in future physiological investigations. While there, his study on the effect of poisons on the frog’s heart greatly impressed Ludwig, who recommended Schmiedeberg for a chair at the University of Strassburg in 1872. The Germans, who had taken the city in the Franco-Prussian War, were anxious to develop an important medical school there; they brought together a distinguished faculty, including Bernhard Naunyn, von Mehring, and Oscar Minkowski in internal medicine, and Felix HoppeSeyler and Franz Hofmeister in physiological chemistry.

Almost single-handedly Schmiedeberg developed the discipline of pharmacology in a medical environment that questioned its importance. This was accomplished by a combination of significant research, effective writing, and a classroom presence that gave the subject lasting importance. Also, he had the good fortune to be placed in a university setting where the German government sought to encourage excellence.

Early in his tenure at Strassburg, the authorities decided that Schmiedeberg would have an institute of pharmacology near the medical center. The building, which was opened in 1887, was carefully planned by Schmiedeberg and provided laboratories for animal experimentation and chemical studies as well as offices, an auditorium, and a library. This institute attracted able young scientists who became the foundation of the new profession. More than 150 pharmacologists were educated by Schmiedeberg, including more than thirty from countries outside Germany. His outstanding students included John J. Abel, Max Cloëtta, Arthur R. Cushny, Hans H. Meyer, and Torald H. Sollmann, all of whom had an important role in training the next generation of pharmacologists.

Schmiedeberg’s research was broad-ranging and at times dealt with purely biochemical problems. In his early years at Strassburg he demonstrated that benzoic acid is converted to hippuric acid by reaction with glycine in blood-perfused kidneys. His laboratory also demonstrated the conversion of ammonium carbonate to urea and studied the conditions under which this occurred. It was shown that acids administered to animals were neutralized by the physiological formation of ammonia but that such ammonia formation is limited in humans, a situation that leads to acidosis when the beta-hydroxybutyric acid formed in diabetics remains unneutralized.

Research on the effects of alcohol convinced Schmiedeberg that alcohol is a depressant of the central nervous system, acting on the highest centers first and finally dulling the medullary centers.

In his work on carbamic acid esters, Schmiedeberg studied the relation between chemical structure and narcotic influence. He studied the clinical action of amylene hydrate, paraldehyde, urethane, and various hypnotically active urea derivatives.

Schmiedeberg’s laboratory isolated muscarine from Amanita muscaria and studied the nature of its physiological action. He was particularly interested in the action of chemical substances on the heart and in the pharmacological behavior of the autonomic nervous system. The staff of his institute experimentally explored the pharmacological action of the most important drugs and toxins encountered in the medicine of the time. These studies included the effect of nicotine on the heart, the physiological action of digitalis glycosides, and the toxic effects of heavy metals in organic combinations. Other work included studies on cartilaginous tissues and mucoid substances; the isolation of glucuronic acid from cartilage in the form of chondrosine; the relation of hyaluronic acid to chondroitin sulfate and collagen; and chemical studies on mucoproteins and mucopolysaccharides.

As a teacher, Schmiedeberg was at his best on a one-to-one basis in the laboratory. He was patient with beginners and enjoyed introducing them to the art of research, particularly the importance of experimental design and execution of experiments. In the lecture hall he was well organized but inclined to be authoritarian.

As a writer, Schmiedeberg was talented in the presentation of factual material and using it to reason out conclusions in rigorous fashion. His experimental studies were reported in more than two hundred papers, and his textbook was a formative one for the discipline. With Bernard Naunyn and Edwin Klebs he founded Archiv für experimentalle Pathologie unt Pharmakohgie soon after joining the Strassburg faculty. He and Naunyn continued to edit the Archiv for the remainder of their lives.

Schmiedeberg, who never married, remained active at his institute until late 1918, when the French took possession of the city and university. He left the university, moving across the Rhine to Baden-Baden, where he lived near Naunyn. He was in declining health for the rest of his life.


I. Original Works. Most of Schmiedeberg’s research papers were published in Archiv für experimentelle Pathologie und Pharmukotogie. The Schmiedeberg festschrift, a supplement to Archiv, contains a list of publications up to 1908. The list is updated by Hans H. Meyer in Archiv, 92 (1922), i-xvii; see also Poggendorff, III, 1202: IV, 1340; VI, 2346; and VIIA, supp., 592. His textbook. Grundriss der Artzneimittellehre (Leipzig, 1883), was retitled Grundriss der Pharmakologie from the 4th ed. on, and was translated by Thomas Dixson as Elements of Pharmacology (Edinburgh, 1887).

II. Secondary Literature. Obituaries are Hans H . Meyer, in Archiv für experimentelle Pathologie und Pharmakologie, 92 (1922), i-xvii, and in Naturwissen-schaften, 10 (1922), 105-107; Bernard Naunyn, in Archiv für experimentelle Pathologic und Pharmakologie, 90 (1921), i-vii; and Lancet (1921), 722. Analytical pieces dealing with his pharmacological work are Ernst R. Habermann, “Rudolf Buchheim and the Beginning of Pharmacology as a Science,” in Annual Review of Pharmacology, 14 (1974), 1-8; Jan Koch-Weser and Paul J. Schechter, “Schmiedeberg in Strassburg 1878-1918,” in Life Sciences, 22 (1978), 1361-1377; and Gustav Kuschinsky, “The Influence of Dorpat on the Emergence of Pharmacology as a Distinct Science,” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 23 (1968), 258-271.

Aaron J. Ihde

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Schmiedeberg, (Johann Ernst) Oswald

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