Sprengel, Kurt Polycarp Joachim
SPRENGEL, KURT POLYCARP JOACHIM
(b. Boldekow, Germany, 3 August 1766; d. Halle, Germany, 15 March 1833)
In Hermann F. Kilian’s survey of German universities of 1828, Sprengel was viewed as the most prestigious professor in Germany. His reputation was principally the result of his erudite and detailed publication in medical history and some botanical contributions, especially in phytotomy. At the time of his death, Sprengel was a member of almost fifty German and foreign academies and learned societies, a shining star in the otherwise bleak sky of contemporary medicine in Germany.
Sprengel was born in a small Pomeranian village, the son of a local preacher and nephew of the distinguished botanist Christian K. Sprengel. Under the direction of his father, a former teacher at the Berlin Realschule, Sprengel learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and also received a solid background in the natural sciences. Later he taught himself Arabic and began the study of five modern European languages, which he soon mastered.
Short of funds and barely seventeen years old, Sprengel found employment as a private tutor near Greifswald, studying theology and philology in his spare moments. In 1784 he successfully passed his religious examinations and was allowed to preach. In 1785 Sprengel matriculated at the University of Halle, determined to study medicine (and not theology, as adduced in some accounts). At the end of five semesters under the direction of Phillip F. T. Meckel and Johann F. G. Goldhagen, he graduated in 1787 with a dissertation on nosology.
Two years later Sprengel began to teach legal and historical subjects at the university as an unsalaried instructor. During the same years he successfully established a medical practice in Halle. In 1795, however, he courageously accepted an invitation to become a full-time academician at the University of Halle, thereby terminating his more lucrative private practice and his higher status.
Versatile and talented, Sprengel taught pathology, legal medicine, semeiology, medical history, and botany at the university. He was popular with the students and well-known for his charity to the needy. After 1800 Sprengel devoted more attention to botany than to medicine. This shift possibly reflected his growing dissatisfaction with the prominence of philosophical German medicine. As professor of botany, he was also director of the university’s botanical gardens, where he resided with his family. He established an extensive herbarium and conducted research tours in the nearby countryside.
His contemporaries considered Sprengel to be a keen classical scholar and historian. His most important publication was a medical history, Versuch einer pragmatischen Geschichte der Arzneikunde. Although it became the standard work on the subject for nearly a century, Sprengel modestly labeled it an “attempt” to portray medicine chronologically in the various historical periods. He deemphasized the strictly biographical aspects, stressing instead the connections between medicine and contemporary cultural and philosophical forces.
Sprengel called his work a “pragmatic” history of medicine written with a definite utilitarian purpose. In this approach he followed the historical conceptions prevalent during the Enlightenment, which raised the hope of a perfected future, if only the shackles of superstition could be unfastened and the path of reason followed. Therefore Sprengel’s goal was to present the medical past with all its errors and pitfalls, in the hope that these aberrations would provide valuable lessons and reveal the basic truths on which a more rational medicine could be developed.
Sprengel’s fame was further enhanced by his numerous translations—many of them from English authors—and his editorship of five journals dealing with medical and botanical subjects. When defending his beliefs or attacking those trends in medicine that he profoundly disliked, he wrote clearly, incisively, and to the point, without allowing petty personal arguments to vitiate his criticism.
Sprengel was a vigorous critic of the emerging speculative currents in German medicine. He opposed Brownianism and its modified Erregungstheorie, and wrote a monograph against animal magnetism. Moreover, he disproved Hahnemann’s claims of classical roots for homeopathy, thus incurring the wrath of its founder, who sought vindication in the courts. Sprengel’s analysis of German medicine during the last decade of the eighteenth century provided an invaluable document, written by a strict adherent of Kant’s critical philosophy, who found himself averse to the new Naturphilosophie.
Although hampered by inadequate optics and preparation techniques. Sprengel strongly promoted the microscopic examination of plants and studied their structure, developing his own theory of plant-cell formation. Although soon superseded, his ideas about the nature of cells and fibers provided an essential stimulus for further investigations by other notable botanists, such as Heinrich F. Link, Johann J. Bernhardi. and Ludolf C Treviranus.
I. Original Works. A complete list of Sprengel’s publications is in Rohlfs (see below), 212–218; and Adolph C. P. Callisen, Medicinisches Schriftsteller-Lexicon, XXXII (Altona, 1844), 389–399. His most famous work, Versuch einer pragmatischen Geschichte der Arzneikunde, 5 vols. (Halle, 1792–1799), was reprinted with corrections (1800–1803, 1821–1828) and was translated into French (1810) and Italian (1812), running to several eds. Other historical publications include Geschichte der Medicin im Auszuge (Halle, 1804) and Geschichte der Chirurgie, 2 vols. (Halle, 1805–1819).
Among Sprengel’s numerous translations of classical and modern medical authors are Galen’s Fiberlehre (Breslau-Leipzig, 1788); Apologie des Hipporcrates und senier Grundsätze (Leipzig, 1789); and William Buchan’s Hausarzneikunde (Altenburg, 1792).
Sprengel summarized the contemporary medical knowledge in two textbooks: Handbuch der Pathologie, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 1795–1797), and Handbuch der Semiotik (Halle, 1801). In addition he broadly criticized the medical developments of 1790–1800 in Kritische Uebersicht des Zustandes der Arzneikunde in dem letzten Jahrzehend (Halle, 1801).
His principal botanical works are Anleitung zur Kenntniss der Gewächse, 3 vols. (Halle, 1802–1804); Vom Baue und der Natur der Gewächse (Halle, 1812); and Geschichte der Botanik (Altenburg, 1817). One section of the first was translated into English and published as An Introduction to the Study of Cryptogamous Plants, (London, 1807).
II. Secondary Literature. The most extensive treatment of Sprengel’s life and writings is in Heinrich Rohlfs, Geschichte der deutschen Medicin, II (Stuttgart, 1880), 212–279, under the heading “Kurt Sprengel, der Pragmatiker.” An early biography and list of his writings are in Julius Rosenbaum, Curtii Sprengelii opuscula academica (Leipzig-Vienna, 1844), xii–xx, Shorter biographical sketches appeared in Allgemeine deustche Biographie, XXXV, 296–299; August Hirsch, Biographisches Lexikon, 2nd. ed., V (Munich. 1932), 374–375; and Neuer Nekrolog der Deutschen. XI (1833), 200–208.
A discussion of Sprengel’s medical historiography is in E. Heischkel. “Die Medizinhistoriographie im XVIII. Jahrhundert,” in Janus, 25 (1931), 67–151. Goethe’s minor relationship with Sprengel is mentioned in D. E. Meyer, “Goethes botanische Arbeit in Beziehung Zu Christian Konrad Sprengel (1750–1816) und Kurt Sprengel (1766–1833) auf Grund neuer Nachfoschungen in Briefen und Tagebüchern.” in Berichte der Deutschen botanischen Gesellschaft, 80 (1967) 209–217. A more recent article stressing Sprengel’s opposition to the prevailing medical systems is S. Alleori, “II sistema dottrinario medico di Curzio Sprengel avversario dei sisterni,” in Pigine di storia della medicina. Collana miscellanea, 19 (1968), 119–131.
Some of Sprengel’s botanical contributions are mentioned in Julius von Sachs. History of Botany (1530–1860), translated by H. E. F. Garnsey. 2n imp.(Oxford, 1906), A more extensive account can be found in Gregor Kraus, Der Botanische Garten der Universität Halle (Leipzig, 1894). no, 2: “Kurt Sprenge” See also Hermann F. Kilian, Die Universitaeten Deutschlands in medicinisch-naturwissenschaftlicher Hinsicht betrachtet (Heidelberg-Leipzig, 1828), 114, 120.
Guenter B. Risse