Wilhelm His Sr., Embryologist

Wilhelm His, born 9 Jul 1831; died 1904.

Wilhelm His, born in Basel, Switzerland, was a German anatomist and embryologist who created the science of histogenesis, or the study of the embryonic origins of different types of animal tissue. His discovery, in 1886, that each nerve fibre stems from a single nerve cell was essential to the development of the neuron theory. He invented the microtome – a device to slice very thin serial specimens for microscope slides (1865). With it, he could examine embryos. He was the first to accurately describe the human embryo.

(from Today in Science History)

His also made a most significant theoretical contribution when he specifically rejected all forms of soft inheritance (Lamarkism). The passage runs [original in German]:

“Until it has been refuted, I stand by the statement that characters can not be inherited that were acquired during the lifetime of the individual”.

The passage comes from his W. 1874. Unsere Körperform und das physiologische Problem ihrer Enstehung. Vogel, Leipzig. The historical significance is that it was not until 1883 that August Weismann made a similar declaration.

His is also remembered for disputing the veracity of Ernst Haeckel’s drawings of embryo, which had been used as justifcation for the development of recapitulation theory.

Above, a copy of Haeckel’s disputed embryo drawings, which illustrated the biogenetic law or embryological parallelism, and is often expressed as “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny“. It was first put forward in 1866 by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel proposed that the embryonal development of an individual organism (its ontogeny) followed the same path as the evolutionary history of its species (its phylogeny). This theory, in the highly elaborate and deterministic form advanced by Haeckel, has, since the early twentieth century, been refuted on many fronts.

(from Wikipedia)

Examples of Wilhelm His’s embryological drawings.
See this biography to glimpse his role in identifying the remains of J. S. Bach.

There is also a pdf of his obituary as found in the British Medical Journal, 1904.


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