Soemmerring, Samuel Thomas

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(b. Torun, Poland, 18 January 1755; d. Frankfurt. Germany, 2 March 1830)

comparative anatomy, human anatomy, anthropology, physiology.

Soemmerring’s maturity coincided with the French Revolution and the subsequent political disorders in Germany. Yet despite the instability of his career, his writings made him the most famous German anatomist of the early nineteenth century. His works were characterized by a fully developed presentation of the text and by scientifically accurate illustrations of considerable artistic merit.

After attending the Gymnasium in Torun (1769–1774). Soemmerring studied medicine from 1774 to 1778 at Göttingen, where he was inspired by the zeal for research of two of his teachers, Heinrich August Wrisberg and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. While still a student Soemmerring had decided to become an anatomist; the prerequisites for this career were a gift for observation and skill in drawing. Soemmerring’s choice of profession did not meet with the approval of his father. Johann Thomas Soemmerring, the municipal physician of Torun. (Soemmerring’s mother was the former Regina Geret, a pastor’s daughter.) The family was upper middle class; old-fashioned thrift and Lutheran convictions were the foundations of its way of life. By accepting various privations, Soemmerring was able to pursue his plans without his father’s assistance and earned the M.D. on 7 April 1778 with a dissertation on the base of the brain and the origin of the cranial nerves. With the aid of his own illustrations he criticized earlier accounts and proposed the order of the twelve cranial nerves that is still taught. Although not the first to adopt this order, Soemmerring provided such solid grounds for it that ultimately it was generally accepted. To complete his training, he traveled in Holland. England, and Scotland. Among the physicians and scientists he met, those who most impressed him were Peter Camper, John Hunter, and Alexander Monro (Secundus).

In April 1779, shortly after his return to Göttingen, Soemmerring became professor of anatomy and surgery at the Collegium Carolinum in Kassel. He remained there until the fall of 1784, when he assumed the professorship of anatomy and physiology at the University of Mainz (until 1797). Both Kassel and Mainz were important cultural centers where the arts and sciences were encouraged by discerning rulers. At Kassel, Soemmerring was permitted to dissect animals that had died in the menagerie and to examine the corpses of members of the city’s Negro colony. These investigations resulted in a study on the bodily characteristics of Negroes and Europeans (1784); Soemmerring concluded that despite several differences, both belonged to the same species.

One of Soemmerring’s chief fields of research was neuroanatomy. His demonstration of the crossing of the optical nerve fibers (1786) was followed by a publication on the brain and spinal cord (1788), the annotations to which contained a wealth of findings in comparative anatomy. Fur-.her evidence of Soemmerring’s extensive knowledge can be seen in the footnotes to the translation of Haller’s Primae lineae physiologiae (1788). Soemmerring no longer considered the spinal cord to be a “great nerve” but, rather, a part of the central nervous system. Further, he gave the hypophysis its current name, replacing the outmoded term glandula pituitaria. Soemmerring’s interest in the nervous system and the sense organs also resulted in the publication of illustrations and descriptions of several deformities (1791); the frontis piece to the work showed a series of progressive duplications of the face and head.

In 1796 Soemmerring published a work on “the organ of the soul.” The anatomical part was well received, especially the assertion that the cranial nerves originate (or, as the case may be terminate) in the ventricle wall. But the speculative claim—based on the ideas of Naturphilosophie—that the intraventricular cerebrospinal fluid is the seat of a sensorium commune was rejected by more perceptive readers. In contrast, the illustrations of the base of the brain (1799) were widely admired. In Mainz. Soemmerring had met Christian Koeck, whom he trained as a scientific draftsman. Koeck enriched the literature with many excellent illustrations, including those of the brain of a three-year-old boy.

Soemmerring presented further anatomical findings in a book on the effect of corsets. He showed that the deformation of the thorax that they produced led to the displacement of the stomach and liver, and consequently he opposed the tight lacing of the waist and the crinoline. His handbook of human anatomy, Vom Baue des menschlichen Körpers (1791–17961), was based as far as possible on his own observations and was conceived as a supplement to Haller’s Primae lineae physiologia: the work was still in use in expanded form a half century later. The foreword to the first edition reveals Soemmerring’s preoccupation with the use of clear, unmistakable terminology. It also contains an impressive list of his anatomical discoveries, although not all of them have proved to be valid. Among those that are still accepted, two of the most remarkable are the observation that arterial trunks always lie on the bent side of the joints and the discovery that the small part of the trigeminal nerve always lies against the third branch. Soemmerring also sought to illustrate the ideal form of a female skeleton (1797) and published a collection of illustrations of the human embryo (1799).

During his last years in Mainz, Soemmering’s life changed in important ways. In March 1792 he married Margaretha Elisabetha Grunelius who came from a prominent Frankfurt family. Wartime conditions precluded his establishing a presidence in Mainz, and he supervised his office from Frankfurt. Soemmerring was offered various posts but accepted none of them because of the low salaries. He sold a portion of his anatomical and anthropological collections, dedicated himself to medical practice in Frankfurt, and completed scientific studies that he had begun earlier. After his wife died in January 1802, he was sought by many universities and in March 1805 finally accepted nomination as member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in Munich.

Soemmerring’s abiding interest in the anatomy of the sense organs was especially stimulated after his discovery in 1791 of the fovea centralis in the macula lutea. Between 1801 and 1810 he published four groups of illustrations of the human sense organs, with descriptions in German and Latin. The work was greatly enriched by copper plate engravings based on Koeck’s drawings. In preparing the drawings Soemmerring was less concerned with correct perspective than with the architectonically correct representation of the material.

Soemmerring translated and commented upon the works of others and did extensive reviewing for the scholarly journals published in Göttingen. In addition he often participated in prize competitions, but the material he submitted was mostly of a clinical nature—except for a paper on the structure of the lung (1808). Of Soemmerring’s communications published in the Denksckriften of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences the most important by far was one on electric telegraphs (1809–1810).

Soemmerring’s rheumatic fever and chest ailments were aggravated by the severe climate of Munich, and in 1820 he returned to Frankfurt where he practiced medicine for ten years studied sunspots. Soemmerring was awarded many titles and honors. He became a privy councillor and was named to several orders. As a knight of the Order of the Civil Service of the Bavarian Crown (1808) he was granted personal nobility.


I. Original Works. A bibliography of Soemmerring’s writings is in Adolph Callisen. Medicinisches Scriftstellerr-Lexicon der jetzt lebenden Verfasser, supp., XXXII (Altona. 1844). 348–359.

His works include De basi encephali et originibus nervorum cranio egredientium libri quinque (Göttingen, 1778); Ueber die körperliche Verschiedenheit des Mohren vom Europäer (Mainz, 1784; 2nd ed., slightly different title, Frankfurt–Mainz, 1785); Vom Hirn und Rückenmark (Mainz, 1788; 2nd ed., Leipzig, 1792); Ueber die Schädlichkeit der Schnürbrüste (Leipzig, 1788; 2nd ed., slightly different title, Berlin, 1793); Abbildungen und Beschreibungen einiger Missgeburten (Mainz, 1791); Vom Baue des menschlichen Körpers, 5 vols. (Frankfurt, 1791–1796; 2nd ed., 1796–1801), also in Latin, 6 vols. (Leipzig, 1794–1801): Ueber das Organ der Seele (Königsberg, 1796); Tabula sceleti feminini juncta descriptione (Frankfurt, 1797); “De foramine centrali limbo luteo cincto retinae humanae,” in Commentationes Societatis regiae scientiarum Göttingensis, 13 (1799). 3–13; Icones embryonum humanorum (Frankfurt, 1799); Tabula baseos encephali (Frankfurt, 1799); Abbildungen des menschlichen Auges (Frankfurt, 1801), also in Latin (Frankfurt, 1804); Abbildungen des menschlichen Hörorganes(Frankfurt, 1806), also in Latin (Frankfurt, 1806), Abbildungen der menschlichen Organe des Geschmackes und der Stimme (Frankfurt, 1806), also in Latin (Frankfurt, 1808): Ueber die Structur, die Verrichtung und den Bau der Lungen (Berlin, 1808). 57–126, written with F. O. Reisseisen; Abbildungen der menschlichen organe des Geruches (Frankfurt, 1809), also in Latin (Frankfurt, 1810); and “Ueber einen elektrischen Telegraphen,” in Denkschriften der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu München for 1809–1810 (1811), 401–414.

II. Secondary Literature see Gerhard Aumüller, “Zur Geschiehte der Anatomischen Institute von Kassel und Mainz (I-III),” in Medizinhistoriches Journal, 5 (1970), 59–80, 145–160, 268–288; Ignaz Döllinger Gedächtnisrede auf Samuel Thomas Sommerring (Munich, 1830); W. Kiese, “The 150th Anniversary of S. T. Soemmerring’s Organ of the Soul,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 20 (1946), 310–321; Wilhelm Stricker, Samuel Thomas Soemmerring nach seinem Leben und Wirken geschildert (Frankfurt, 1862); and Rudolph Wagner, Samuel Thomas Soemmerrings Leben und Verkehr mit seinen Zeitgenossen, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1844).

Erich Hintsche