Wilhelm Hofmeister–Unsung Giant of Biology

From Today in Science History:

Wilhelm (Friedrich Benedikt) Hofmeister. Born 18 May 1824; died 12 Jan 1877. He was a German botanist whose investigations of plant structure made him a pioneer in the science of comparative plant morphology. He discovered the regular alternation of sexual and asexual generation in plants (1862), which is the basis for the explanation of the life cycle in all known plants. He recognized that all land plants form one multicellular individual which he called the gametophyte that produced gametangia; and then a second multicellular individual called the sporophyte that forms sporangia in which meiosis results in the formation of spores. Hofmeister called this life cycle pattern with distinct gametophytes and sporophytes: alternation of generations.

More on this unsung, self educated biologist can be found at the pay per view article: The Genius of Wilhelm Hofmeister: The Origin of Causal-Analytical Research in Plant Development, by Donald R. Kaplan and Todd J. Cooke. The abstract:

Friederich Wilhelm Benedikt Hofmeister (1824-1877) stands as one of the true giants in the history of biology and belongs in the same pantheon as Darwin and Mendel. Yet by comparison, he is virtually unknown. If he is known at all, it is for his early work on flowering plant embryology and his ground-breaking discovery of the alternation of generations in plants, which he published at age 27 in 1851. Remarkable as the latter study was, it was but a prelude to the more fundamental contributions he was to make in the study of plant growth and development expressed in his books on plant cell biology (Die Lehre von der Pfanzenzelle, 1867) and plant morphology (Allgemeine Morphologie der Gewachse, 1868). In this article we review his remarkable life and career, highlighting the fact that his scientific accomplishments were based largely on self-education in all areas of biology, physics, and chemistry. We describe his research accomplishments, including his early embryological studies and their influence on Mendel’s genetic studies as well as his elucidation of the alternation of generations, and we review in detail his cell biology and morphology books. It is in the latter two works that Hofmeister the experimentalist and biophysicist is most manifest. Not only did Hofmeister explore the mechanisms of cytoplasmic streaming, plant morphogenesis, and the effects of gravity and light on their development, but in each instance he developed a biophysical model to integrate and interpret his wealth of observational and experimental data. Because of the lack of attention to the cell and morphology books, Hofmeister’s true genius has not been recognized. After studying several evaluations of Hofmeister by contemporary and later workers, we conclude that his reputation became eclipsed because he was so far ahead of his contemporaries that no one could understand or appreciate his work. In addition, his basically organismic framework was out of step with the more reductionistic cytogenetic work that later came in vogue. We suggest that the translation of the cell and morphology books in English would help re-establish him as one of the most notable scientists in the history of plant biology.

(All images from Wikimedia Commons)

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