Wilbrand, Johann Bernhard

views updated


(b. Clarholz, Germany, 8 March 1779; d. Giessen, Germany, 9 May 1846)


Wilbrand was one of the best-known adherents of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie. Doggedly determined to accept only those facts compatible with his philosophical principles, he went so far as to deny Harvey’s blood circulation and the gaseous exchange that occurs in the lungs. Despite his highly speculative ideas, however, he called for the comprehensive and factual observation of nature, because he deemed such empirically derived information essential in fleshing out the philosophical framework of his physiology.

Wilbrand was the only son of farmers who were serfs of a nearby cloister. After education by a local priest, he was sent to a Jesuit gymnasium in Münster. In 1800 he began to study theology and philosophy at the University of Münster, in order to secure a living as a clergyman. A year later Wilbrand transferred to the medical school to pursue his growing interest in the natural sciences. In the ensuing years he studied closely with the chemist Johann Bernhard Bodde (1760–1833), an ardent supporter of Naturphilosophie.

After being released from his serfdom in 1803, Wilbrand went to the University of Würzburg, ostensibly for clinical training at the Julius Hospital, since his previous medical education had been purely theoretical. Recommended by Bodde, he met the physician Ignaz Döllinger and the circle of students who attended the philosophical lectures given by Schelling, then a newly appointed member of the faculty. Wilbrand graduated in 1806 with a dissertation on respiration in which he rejected the existence of oxygen and carbon dioxide as independent substances. After receiving his medical degree, he spent several weeks at the Bamberg Hospital, studying the therapeutic methods based on John Brown’s system of medicine (the Brunonian system).

Under the auspices of Count Spiegel Zum Desenberg, later archbishop of Cologne, and others, Wilbrand traveled to Paris, where he studied with Cuvier and Lamarck. Upon his return to Münster in 1807 he became an instructor at the medical school, where he lectured on medico-philosophical subjects.

In 1808 Wilbrand was appointed titular professor of comparative anatomy, physiology, and natural history at the University of Giessen, He became a prolific writer and a busy teacher, lecturing on botany, zoology, anatomy, physiology, and Naturphilosophie. His preeminence led to honors and contacts with leading German intellectuals, including Goethe, who was interested in Wilbrand’s use of the concept of metamorphosis.

In 1817 Wilbrand became director of the botanical gardens and zoo at Giessen. A few years later he received a medal from Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia for his schematic depiction of nature in atlas form: Gemälde der organischen Natur in ihrer Verbreitung auf der Erde (Giessen, 1821).

Wilbrand’s work on human physiology admirably reflects the ideas expressed by the followers of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie and the methods used to seek their verification. He based his highly speculative physiology on the belief that the organism was a complete psychophysiological entity endowed with opposite or contrasted principles responsible for its vital motions (polarity) and constantly undergoing structural transformations. The latter, in a sense, represented a metabolic process of solidification and liquefaction of organic matter, Wilbrand’s methodology stressed the supremacy of the investigator’s “mental eye,” which could discern the fundamental pattern within nature from the confusing and abundant facts of observation, largely through the use of analogies.

During the 1820’s 1830’s and Wilbrand regularly attended the yearly meetings of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte and often presented his papers at the sessions. As the empirical and inductive method gradually gained ascendancy in German medical circles, audiences became less sympathetic to his faltering philosophical efforts to maintain Schelling’s grandiose conception of nature. Risking hostility and even ridicule, Wilbrand adamantly remained opposed to the new scientific research in biochemistry and biophysics, which he considered to be a distorted and piecemeal analysis. Paradoxically, his call for the observation of nature both in breadth and in depth was being heeded by the new generation of physicians, who refused to fetter their conclusions to Naturphilosophie.


I. Original Works. Wilbrand’s best-known work is Physiologie des Menschen (Giessen, 1815). Among his philosophically oriented writings are Darstellung der gesammten Organisation, 2 vols. (Giessen. 1809). and Ueber den Zusammenhang der Natur mit dem Uebersinnlichen (Mainz, 1843). He also wrote two widely read textbooks: Handhuch der Naturgeschichte des Thiereiches (Giessen, 1829), and Handbuch der vergleichenden Anatomie in ihrer nächsten Beziehung auf die Physiologie(Darmstadt, 1838), Wilbrand’s Selbstbiographie (Giessen, 1831) provides glimpses of his career.

A number of Wilbrand’s original documents exist in the family’s archives in Darmstadt and have been catalogued by Dr. Axel Murken.

II. Secondary Literature. Brief biographical sketches of Wilbrand are A. Murken, “Johann Bernhard Wilbrand (1779–1846), ein Mediziner und Philosoph aus Clarholz,” in Gütersloher Beiträge, 8 (1967), 171–175; and K. E. Rothschuh, “Johann Bernhard Wilbrand, ein Münsterläander, Naturforscher und Arzt im Zeitalter der Romantik,” in Westfälische Nachrichten Beilage (20 Nov. 1954), 93–95, 104; (24 Oct. 1957), 31–32.

Wilbrand’s ideas regarding the circulation of the blood are mentioned in E. Hirschfeld, “Romantische Medizin,” in Kyklos3 (1930), 29–31; and in Werner Leib-brand Die spekulative Medizin der Romantik (Hamburg, 1956), 130–132. A more detailed analysis of his basic physiological ideas is C. Probst, “Johann Bernhard Wilbrand (1779–1846) und die Physiologie der Romantik,” in Sudhoffs Archiv, 50 (1966), 157–178. Wilbrand’s relationship with Goethe Wilbrand (1779– 1846), ein Naturwissenschaftler der Romantik und seine Beziehung zu J. W. von Goethe,” in Medizinische Monatsschrift, 24 (1970), 165–170.

Guenter B. Risse