Wagner, Rudolph

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(b. Bayreuth, Germany, 30 July 1805; d. Göttingen, Germany, 13 May 1864), comparative anatomy, physiology, anthropology.

Wagner was the son of Lorenz Heinrich Wagner, a Bavarian court councillor and Gymnasium director. He studied at the Gymnasiums in Bayreuth and Augsburg before beginning his medical education at the University of Erlangen in 1822. Two years later he transferred to the University of Würzburg, from which he graduated M.D. in 1826. His interest in the natural sciences then led him to spend eight months studying with Cuvier in Paris, where he received an excellent grounding in comparative anatomy. Returning to Germany, Wagner became a prosector in anatomy at Erlangen; he was made Privatdozent in 1829, and professor of comparative anatomy and zoology in 1832. In 1840 he accepted an appointment at Göttingen, where he succeeded J. F. Blumenbach as professor of physiology, comparative anatomy, and general natural history; he also served as curator of Blumenbach’s craniological collection and lectured on anthropology.

Wagner conducted research in a number of areas. His most important work concerned mammalian ova and sperm. Purkyně had already, in 1825, discovered the nucleus in the avian egg, while K. E. von Baer had discovered the mammalian ovum (1827), and J. V. Coste had identified its nucleus (1833). It remained for Wagner to discover (1835) an important formation in the ovum of several species of mammals, which he called the macula germinativa—later known as the nucleolus. With Dujardin, Wagner was one of the first to use the achromatic microscope to examine sperm; in 1837 he published highly accurate illustrations of spermatozoa, showing the structures that he had actually seen, which he called “seminal threads.” His accomplishment was the more noteworthy in that at the same time a number of other biologists believed that spermatozoa were parasitic animals, and even attempted to identify a visceral system in them.

In a series of other microscopical researches, Wagner demonstrated, in 1833, that red blood corpuscles have no nuclei. He made significant contributions to the study of the retina and the choroidea of the eye (1835) and of the electric organ of the torpedo fish (1847), as well as sharing in George Meissner’s discovery of the tactile corpuscles of the skin (1852). In 1853 and 1854, Wagner also conducted investigations of the nervous system, by which he was able to show the relation between the peripheral nerve fibers and the ganglion cells of the brain.

Wagner’s most important physiological work was his edition of the five-volume Handwörterbuch der Physiologie mit Rücksicht auf physiologische Pathologie, published between 1842 and 1853. He intended this work to be a compendium of all the physiological knowledge of the day; it consists of sixty-three extensive review articles by thirty authors, including Lotze, Berzelius, E. H. Weber, Purkyně, Carl Ludwig, Valentin, A. W. Volkmann, and Bidder. Wagner himself contributed a single article on the microscopic structure of the nervous system and an addendum to R. Leuckart’s article on reproduction.

In his physiological work, Wagner emphasized the value of microscopic observation. As a leading representative of the histophysiological trend, he considered the microscope to be an essential means of elucidating physiological function, and tended to be somewhat critical of experimentation and pure mensuration. “What the scales are for the chemist, the telescope for the astronomer, so the microscope is for the physiologist,” he wrote. His own work exemplifies his theory; his study of the structure of the electric organ of the torpedo fish was designed to explain the production of electric potential, while the discovery of the knowledge of the mechanics of the stimulation of sensory nerve endings. A number of Wagner’s students worked under similar principles; an investigation of the structure of nerve endings in muscle performed by his pupil W. F. Kühne, for example, led to clarification of the functional transmission of impulses in the motor nerve endings.

In his teaching, Wagner was a captivating lecturer, who emphasized practical instruction. He had an ability to stimulate and help young scientists, and a number of his collaborators, including R. Leuckart, Billroth, Meissner, and Julius Vogel, became prominent in a variety of specialties. He was also able to further his views through the foundation of the Göttingen Physiological Institute.

In addition to his work in anatomy and physiology, Wagner was strongly interested in philosophical problems concerning mind and body, science and society, and morality and materialism. These interests deepened after he suffered a severe pulmonary hemorrhage in 1845, and began to confine his work to the study of the nervous system and to anthropology. His philosophical views were first published in 1851; highly conservative, they proved a source of annoyance to younger scientists. In 1854 Wagner addressed a meeting of German scientists and physicians at Göttingen, and his speech initiated an unpleasant controversy about materialism, in which his chief opponent, Carl Vogt, published a witty and sarcastic critique of Wagner’s views on the creation of man and the nature of his soul. The discussion soon thereafter degenerated into personal insult from both sides, and Wagner thereafter confined his attention to more strictly scientific matters.


I. Original Works. A chronological list of Wagner’s writings, including their translations, is in E. Ehler’s paper (see below), 484–488. They include Zur verglei chenden Physiologie des Blutes. Untersuchungen über Blukörperchen, Blutbildung und Blutbahn, nebst Bemerkungen über Blutbewegung, Ernährung, und Absonderund (Leipzig, 1832-1833) with Nachträge (Leipzig, 1838); Lehubuch der vergleichenden Anatomie (Leipzig, 1834-1835): “Einige Bemerkungen und Fragen über das Keimbläschen,” in Müller’s Archiv für Anatomie…, 2 (1835), 373–384; Prodromus historiae generationis hominis atque animalium (Leipzig, 1836): “Fragmente zur Physiologie der Zeugung, vorzülich zur mikro skopischen Analyse des Spermas,” in Abhandlungen der k. Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2 (1837), 381–416; Icones physiologicae. Tabulae physiologiam et geneseos historiam illustrantes, 3 fascs. (Leipzig, 1839), also supp., Bau und Endigungen der Nerven (Leipzig. 1847): Icones zootomicae (Leipzig. 1841); Lehrbuch der Physiologie für Vorlesungen und Selbstunterricht. I . Specielle Geschichte der Lebensprocesse (Leipzig, 1839. 1843. 1845); Elements of Physiology for the Use of Students, and With Special Reference to the Wants of Practitioners, translated by Robert Willis (London, 1841): Samuel Thomas von Soemmerings, Leben und Verkehr mit seinen Zeitgenossen, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1844): “Ueber den feinere Bau des elektrischen Organs im Zitterrochen,” in Abhandlungen der k. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, 3 (1848). 141–166; “Semen,” in Todd’s Cyclopedia of Anatomy and Physiology, IV (London, 1848), written with R. Leuckart: Neurologische Untersuchungen (Göttingen, 1854): Über Wissen und Glauben mit beson derer Beziehung zur Zukunft der Seelen (Göttingen, 1854); Der Kampf um die Seele vom Standpunkt der Wissenschaft (Göttingen, 1857); and Bericht über die Zusammenkunft einiger Anthropologen im September 1861 in Göttingen … (Leipzig. 1861). written with K. E. von Baer.

II. Secondary Literature. “Nekrolog von Rudolph Wagner,” by his eldest son, Adolph Wagner, was published in Nachrichten von der k. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen (1864), 375–399. An interesting critical biography is in E. Ehler, “Göttinger Zoologen,” in Festschrift zur Feier des hunderfünfzigjährigen Bestehens der Königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschften zu Göttingen (Berlin, 1901), 431–447. Wagner’s conception of physiology is discussed in K. E. Rothschuh, Physiologie. Der Wandel ihrer Konzepte, Probleme und Methoden vom 16. bis 19. Jahrhundert (Freiburg—Munich, 1968), 260–261, 296–297. On the controversy over materilism, see E. Nordenskiöld, The History of Biology (New York, 1928), 450; and H. Degen, “Vor hundert Jahren. Die Naturforscher Versammlung in Göttingen und der Materialismusstreit,” in Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau, 7 (1954), 271–277. On anthropology, see Benno Ottow, “K.E. von Baer als Kraniologe und die Anthropologen-Versammlung 1861 in Göttingen,” in Sudhoffs Archiv ., 50 (1966), 43–68.

Vladislav Kruta