Lorenz Oken

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Lorenz Oken


German Natural Scientist

Lorenz Oken, a proponent of natural science and philosophy, asserted that there are fundamental units of life, which he called "infusoria." His general ideas about the elemental structures of living organisms, though specifically incorrect, anticipated the subsequent identification of the cell and development of cell theory. He was also a founder of scientific congresses or meetings.

Born at Bohlsbach bei Offenberg, Baden, Germany, in the Black Forest, Oken was the son of a peasant farmer. He attended the Universities of Freiburg, Wurzburg, and Göttingen. With a keen mind and great observation skills, he was interested in a wide variety of fields, including optics, minerals, and even military science. In 1803, at the early age of 24, he published a book entitled Naturphilosophie, translated as Natural Philosophy, in which he developed his ideas. The publication of this book solidly identified him with the school of thought called natural philosophy, or natural science, that had been founded by Friedrich Schelling (1777-1854), a German philosopher of romanticism and idealism.

Oken had a strong personality and presented his ideas with bombast and forcefulness. He was also involved in German revolutionary youth movements that the government strongly suppressed. Because of his strong and unpopular ideas, he frequently changed jobs. He graduated from Freiburg in 1804, then hopped from Göttingen to Jena, to Munich, and to Erlangen. He found a niche at the newly created University of Zurich, where he remained until his death in 1851.

The ideas of natural science and philosophy at the beginning of the nineteenth century were quite different from the scientific natural science of today. The concepts designated as part of the romantic movement were a revolt against the formal classicism in the past and dealt with primitive nature. Oken studied the bones, intestines, and umbilical cord, and established basic ideas about elementary units of living organisms, which he called the "infusoria." He believed all flesh is made of these infusoria and called them "animalcules" or little animals. He named these primal animals "Urthiere." The Urthiere is a romantic designation critical in natural thought, as the prefix "Ur" is used to describe primal animals or protozoans. This term is a key element of natural philosophy and the spirit of romanticism which sought to return to simple roots in nature.

Oken proposed that these primal animals are the basic materials of all beings, both plants and animals. The primal animals that make up the higher organisms are subject to that higher being. When the primal beings fuse together, they form the higher organism with each of the primals losing its own individual identity to be part of the whole. Actually, Oken was approaching the idea of the cell, but, as a romantic philosopher, always traced a thread of being from simpler to complex forms.

Oken promoted the idea of primal slime. The substance arose, it was thought, when conditions reached equilibrium, producing a sphere, a miniature of the planet. According to this idea, the primal mass is formed somewhere along the edge of the sea and land, and from this emerged the original infusorian.

Oken's proclamations fit into the fundamental concepts of nineteenth-century Romantic science or philosophy of the time. However, his enthusiasm and romantic ideas may be difficult for the modern reader to decipher.

One of his greatest contributions to science was the creation of scientific congresses outside the university setting. His first meeting was held in Leipzig in 1822. A prolific writer, Oken's books were printed and reprinted until the principles of cell theory, established by Theodor Schwann (1801-1882), superceded his work.

The strong opinions of romanticism were eventually overridden by the emergence of experimental natural science. However, in 1951, the centennial of Oken's death, popular articles were written about him and a scientific meeting was held in Freiburg in his honor.