Jan Evangelista Purkyně and the histology of the nerve cell: frustrations and setbacks at Breslau
Ortwin Bock (ortwinbock at iafrica dot com)
A13 Larmenier Village, VREDEHOEK 8001, Cape Town, South Africa
Cite as
Research 2017;4:2115

There can be no doubt that in the constellation ‘History of Neuroscience’ one of the brightest stars would be ‘Jan Evangelista Purkyně ’ named after the nineteenth century Czech physiologist of that name.


Johannes Evangelista Purkyně was born at Libochovice in the northern part of Bohemia on 17 December 1787. After primary school he went to a gymnasium run by a Piarist Order which he joined as a novitiate In 1804 but left three years later. While teaching at a school in eastern Bohemia he came across books on philosophy which was to remain a passion of his for the rest of his life. He continued his philosophical studies at Prague in 1807 but later became interested in science and decided to study medicine. He graduated Doctor of Medicine on 9 December 1818 having defended his thesis -- “Beiträge über das subjektiver Sehen und Hinsicht” -- in public nine days earlier. After graduation Purkyně preferred to teach and continue his research on visual phenomena and vertigo and the effects of drugs rather than practice as a doctor.

After several unsuccessful attempts elsewhere Purkyně , at the beginning of 1823, was appointed Professor of Physiology and Pathology at Breslau, at the time a thriving city with a Stock Exchange and the largest wool market in Europe; at 36 years of age he was old for his first professorship. Purkyně remained at Breslau until the Easter of 1850 when he returned to Prague as Professor of Physiology; he was now 63 years old [1-4].

Breslau 1823 to 1850

During the 26 years Purkyně spent at Breslau the number of his and his students’ publications was quite astonishing; a biographer lists more than 230 of one sort or another [5].

As far as those dealing with the nervous system are concerned, two qualify for special mention:

  • The article of his star pupil Gabriel Gustav Valentin (1810 – 83), the son of a local jeweller. Valentin stunned the neuro-scientific world in 1836 when he published Über den Verlauf und die letzten Ende der Nerven in Acta Leopoldina [6]. The manuscript, which was delivered to the editor on 9 February 1836, consisted of 199 pages of text and eight plates with 86 images. In image 54 on plate VII Valentin had picked out four components of the cell (probably a Purkyně cell from the cerebellum) -- the granular parenchyma, the nucleus, the nucleolus and the axonal cone – and described their features. Albert Koelliker (1817 – 1905), Professor of Anatomy at Würzburg for many years and doyen of late nineteenth century histologists, in 1850 called it “ the epoch-making and first good description of the nervous system elements” [7].
  • The second publication is based on the illustrated talk on the histology of the brain cells and nerve bundles Purkyně gave during the fourth session of the Congress of German Physicians and Naturalists held in Prague on 23 September 1837 (he also took part in the second session where he discussed the structure and secretions of the stomach). The report of Purkyně’s two talks in Bericht über die Versammlung deutscher Naturforscher und Aertze im Prag September 1837, which was published the next year, included a plate of twenty-one illustrations which are all about the nervous system except for the first nine that deal with the stomach [8]. That this talk was an important event in the evolution of knowledge of the histology of the nervous system is evident from the fact that mention of it is spread throughout articles and books dealing with the history of the neuron.

A commemorative conference “Jan Evangelista Purkyně in Science and Culture” was held in Prague in August 1987. In their contribution two Bratislava – based neuroscientists concluded that on the evidence at their disposal Purkyně was the first to clearly describe what nerve cells and their processes in the brain and spinal cord looked like [9]. Although they did not include Valentin’s article in their list of references nor mention him specifically in their article, this assertion is probably true because Valentin wrote the following in his elaboration of image 54: “ Diese Beobachtung hat zuerst Purkinje an dem Schaafe angestellt “, -- apparently during 1832 -- “ und mir selbst gelang es späterhin, dieselbe Formation bei dem Menschen, dem Kalbe, dem Schaafe, dem Schweine und dem Pferde sowohl hier, als in der gelben Substanz der Hemisphären des grossen Gehirn wieder zu finden “. (This observation was first made by Purkinje on a sheep -- apparently during 1832 -- and I myself later managed to find the same formation in a human, a calf, a sheep, a pig and a horse, both here and in the yellow substance of the hemisphere of the large brain) [10]. This would be in keeping with Purkyně’s habit of not rushing into print, but to announce newer observations mainly through his students’ theses or in lectures and brief reports [11].


Purkyně was appointed Professor of Physiology and Pathology at Breslau by King Friedrich Wilhelm III (1770 – 1840) in January 1823 on the advice of the Prussian Minister of Religious, Educational and Medical Affairs Karl Freiherr von Stein zum Altenstein (1770 – 1840) who had overruled objections by members of the Breslau faculty and had accepted the recommendations of prominent Berlin professors who were acquainted with Purkyně’s work; one of them was the Stockholm – born anatomist and physiologist Karl Asmund Rudolphi (1771 – 1832) who inter alia advised him to think about doing microscopic research. Understandably Purkyně got a cold reception when he started at Breslau a few months later, notably from the Curator (Administrator) of the university Friedrich Wilhelm Neumann (1763 – 1835) (see note 1) and the professor of anatomy Adolph Wilhelm Otto (1786 – 1845); they opposed him at every turn. Otto had been asked to make space for Purkyně in the old Anatomy Institute. The room he allocated him had formerly been the legal post-mortem room and was also used for surgical exercises on cadavers. Purkyně reacted by setting up his laboratory in his own home, where it remained for many years.

Purkyně gave his first physiology lecture on 15 March 1823. The students liked the fact that he supplemented the theoretical lectures with experimental demonstrations and when the word spread more enrolled to study medicine, including the son of the Rector of the university. Although Purkyně also had friends amongst the faculty members who came to regard him as an asset to the university, he was upset by the mumblings of some of the professors who complained that he had been appointed without a habilitation. He silenced them with what became known as Purkyně’s Breslau dissertation, a 58 page monograph Commentatio de examine physiologico organi visus et systematis cutanei based on work he had done while still at Prague. Purkyně became a full professor at Breslau University on 22 December 1823.

The excellence of the habilitation dissertation impressed many of the faculty but Purkyně’s pleas for more space and better equipment fell on deaf ears. Having accepted with enthusiasm Rudolphi’s suggestion that he should consider microscopic research Purkyně understandably wanted one of the achromatic microscopes which had just come on to the market because all he had at his disposal were two compound microscopes of very simple design [13]. Despite this and using only a magnifying glass he produced a masterpiece in 1825: Subjectae sunt symbolae ad ovi avium historiam ante incubationem. This work, which took three months and needed 22 hens, was prompted by the desire of the Breslau Medical Faculty to present, apart from the usual congratulatory address, a substantive treatise to Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752 – 1840), a Göttingen physiologist and anthropologist whose work gave birth to the concept of human races, on the 50th anniversary of his graduation. Finally in 1832 the Prussian Ministry of Teaching Affairs gave him the money to buy a large microscope made by Simon Plössl (1794 – 1868) of Vienna, at the time the best available. With this instrument he and his students embarked on a systematic study of animal and human tissues. In 1836 Purkyně acquired another fine microscope when the university bought him one made by Schieck and Pistor in Berlin -- Friedrich Wilhelm Schieck (1790 – 1870) and Carl Philipp Heinrich Pistor (1778 – 1847).

When it came to getting suitable laboratory and office space Purkyně was even less successful. The following are a few excerpts from a long letter dated 30 August 1841 which he wrote to Rudolph Wagner (1805 – 1864) who had succeeded Blumenbach in 1840: “ When in the winter session 1825 -- 26..... I ventured to run a course of popular lectures on physiology with the necessary practical demonstrations..... I encountered at first considerable difficulties at the Institute of Anatomy, the attitude of which became rather hostile, refusing any support in my new endeavour”. “ Under these circumstances it was only natural that I should make use of the first opportunity that came my way to make myself so independent as to be able to (do) without the anatomic (sic) premises. A room became available on the top floor of the building in which the Faculty of Philosophy was accommodated. It was offered to me for an indefinite period of time, i.e., as long as the Faculty of Philosophy could dispense with it. This room, however, was not exactly comfortable nor suited for physiological experiments...... I was allotted a single room only, whose door opened into the corridor, and within the four walls of this room I had to deposit instruments, animals, water, refuse, collections etc. with the inevitable outcome that my neighbours soon began to raise protests against the adjoining presence of my institute ”. “ In the year 1831 I suggested for the first time to the University Curator Neumann the establishing (of) an altogether independent Institute of Physiology. In his reply he expressed his doubts as to whether such an institute was really necessary, all the more since none of the existing German universities -- not even the most privileged of Bonn and Berlin -- mentioned anything of the kind in their reports “ [14].

Neumann died during 1835 and was succeeded by Ferdinand Wilhelm Heinke (1784 – 1857) who was altogether more sympathetic towards Purkyně’s attempts to establish an Institute of Physiology. He asked him for new proposals. When these were forwarded to the ministry Heinke pointed out that there was not a single room in Purkyně’s flat in which there was not a bottle, a piece of apparatus or some or other preparation. Although the new plans were viewed favourably by all concerned it was decided that there was not enough time nor money to erect a new building -- a former shed at the back of the anatomical institute had to make do and was given a new life, but it was not up to the task. When the institute opened its doors on 8 November 1839 Purkyně must have realised that his long-held dream of working in a building that had been built to meet his requirements was something of the past -- and so it still was when he left for Prague in 1850.

Despite this lack of laboratory space Purkyně and his assistants continued to work tirelessly and in time a certain rivalry developed between them and the group in Berlin headed by Johannes Petrus Müller (1801 – 1858) who had succeeded Rudolphi. These two departments helped to break the stranglehold anatomists had on the teaching of physiology and paved the way to the acceptance of physiology as a separate and equal discipline within the family of medical sciences.

Deaths in the family

As if the hurdles brought about by obstructive administrators and jealous faculty members were not enough, Purkyně had to deal with the deaths of his mother, his wife and their two daughters as well as his father-in-law with whom he had a special relationship while at Breslau.

Purkyně had married 27 year old Julia Agnes Rudolphi on 24 September 1827. By all accounts it was a happy marriage. Julia created a pleasant family home, was moderate in her demands and supported and encouraged her husband in his work. They had four children: Rosalie who was born on 10 February 1829, Johanna during the summer of 1830, Emanuel on 17 December 1831 and Karel on 11 March 1834. Tragedy struck on 28 August 1832 when both Rosalie and Johanna died on the same day during the Second cholera pandemic (1829 – 1851). Worse was to come when irreplaceable Julia succumbed to typhoid fever on 12 February 1835. Purkyně never remarried and brought up their sons alone.

Before this tragedy two more deaths had occurred in the family that must have affected Purkyně adversely -- Julia’s 61 year old father Karl died in Berlin on 30 November 1832 and his mother Rosalia on 20 October 1834; an unhappy widow, she was 78 years old and had lived with them for several years [15].

A Czech in German lands

Cultural differences also played a part in the problems Purkyně experienced with his colleagues at Breslau.

During the Thirty Years’ War the Bohemians were defeated at the battle of the White Mountain on 27 November 1620 . For the next two centuries the Czech language and culture played second fiddle to the German language and culture: the upper and educated middle classes spoke German while the lower classes and manual workers spoke Czech. But the tide started to turn towards the end of the eighteenth century when there was a revival of Czech nationalism with the emergence of an educated middle class who preferred to speak Czech.

The University of Breslau had been founded in 1801. When the University of Frankfurt am Oder closed in 1811 many of the professors there came to Breslau with the purpose of strengthening the German language and customs although the city, as a commercial center at the crossroads between East and West, played host to peoples of many minorities who lived and worked there, particularly Poles.

Purkyně was an out and out Czech language and culture activist. Whenever he could he spoke and wrote in Czech. He wrote poetry and emphasized the need for a Czech scientific terminology -- already in 1821 he had co-founded with Jan Svatopluk Presl (1791 – 1849) the scientific journal “Krok” (step / take a step). The fact that he made grammatical mistakes when he spoke German, and did so in a questionable accent (Otto said he would be better understood if he spoke Latin), was yet another reason why there were colleagues in the university who regarded him as an unwanted outsider.

Return to Prague

When Purkyně returned to Prague during the Easter of 1850 he did establish another institute of physiology but he spent most of his energy on promoting all things Czech.

Purkyně died at noon on 28 July 1869 at the age of 81 from the complications of bladder stones: “Yesterday (3 days later) Prague gave striking proof that she is totally conscious of the passing of a great man who lived here and worked for his people. Purkyně’s funeral was a magnificent tribute but a sad occasion. Nearly all of Prague took part. Sad faces showed how touched everyone was at the loss of a great man who can never be replaced” [16].

And ?

What is mentioned in this essay is a mere snapshot of Purkyně’s accomplishments during his tenure as Professor of Physiology at Breslau.

To have achieved these and much much more while coping with all the frustrations and setbacks that he had to endure can only be explained if it is assumed that Purkyně had an extraordinary need to put the needs of the society he lived in above his own, and a never-ending fascination with the structure and function of the human body, particularly the brain.

What a star, Jan Evangelista Purkyně -- 1787 to 1869.

  1. Of him the poet August Heinrich Hoffman von Fallersleben (1798 – 1874) who penned the German national anthem and was custodian of the Breslau University library from 1823 to 1838 once said: “Einen engherzigeren, missgünstigeren, falscheren Regierungsmenschen habe ich nie kennen lernen. Unter dem Schiene eines Wolwollenden versprach er dies und jenes und beauftragte hinterdrein gerade das Gegentheil, wie ich en spatter oft genug erleben musste” (I never got to know a more ungenerous, uncharitable and false Government official. With the pretence of sympathy he promised this and that and afterwards ordered exactly the opposite to be done, as I later experienced often enough) [12].

I am a retired physician, have no academic association and paid for the expenses incurred out of my own pocket. Mary Bock and Hermann Wittenberg helped to fine - tune the essay.

The essay was recommended for publication by Dr Alexandr Chvátal, until recently Associate Professor in the Department of Molecular Neurophysiology of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, and Emeritus Professor J C de Villiers of the Department of Neurosurgery of the University of Cape Town.

  1. Bureš R. Jan Evangelista Purkyně. Prague: State Medical Publishing House; 1962.
  2. John H.J. Jan Evangelista Purkyně. Czech Scientist and Patriot 1787 – 1869. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society; 1959.
  3. Kruta V. J.E. Purkynĕ [1787 - 1869] Physiologist. Prague: Academia Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences; 1969.
  4. Purš J. Ed. Jan Evangelista Purkyně in Science and Culture. Ústav československých a světových dějin Československě akademie věd; Praha. 1988; 2 volumes.
  5. Kruta V. J.E. Purkynĕ [1787 - 1869] Physiologist. Prague: Academia Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences; 1969: 75 – 111.
  6. Valentin G. Über den verlauf und die letzten enden der nerven. Nova Acta Academiae Leopoldino-Carolinae 18/1; 1836: 51 - 240.
  7. Kölliker A. Mikroskopische Anatomie oder Gewebelehre des Menschen. Zweiter Band , Erste Hälfte. Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann; 1850: 546.
  8. Sternberg K., Krombholz J.V.E. von. Bericht über die Versammlung deutscher Naturforscher und Aerzte in Prag im September 1837. Prag ; 1838: 173 – 181.
  9. Purš J. Ed. Jan Evangelista Purkyně in Science and Culture. Ústav československých a světových dějin Československě akademie věd; Praha. 1988: 483.
  10. Valentin G. Über den verlauf und die letzten enden der nerven. Nova Acta Academiae Leopoldino-Carolinae 18/1; 1836: 152.
  11. Harris H. The Birth of the Cell. New Haven and London: Yale University Press; 1999: 85.
  12. Kruta V. J.E. Purkynĕ [1787 - 1869] Physiologist. Prague: Academia Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences; 1969: 49.
  13. Chvátal A. ( in press ) Jan Evangelista Purkyně ( 1787 – 1869 ) and the instruments for microscopic research in the field of neuroscience. Available from: dx.doi.org/10.1080/0964704X.2016.1272909
  14. Kruta V. J.E. Purkynĕ [1787 - 1869] Physiologist. Prague: Academia Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences; 1969: 50 – 52.
  15. Kruta V. J.E. Purkynĕ [1787 - 1869] Physiologist. Prague: Academia Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences; 1969: 69 -- 71.
  16. John H.J. Jan Evangelista Purkyně. Czech Scientist and Patriot 1787 – 1869. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society; 1959: 52.
ISSN : 2334-1009