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American Doctors and German Universities in the 19th Century

Author: Grzegorz Litynski

Up to the mid-nineteenth century, France was considered the medical center of Europe. In the 1840s and 1850s, however, the pace of intellectual change in the German states quickened as German universities developed new scientific approaches to research. They established laboratories in which scientists turned away from philosophical theories to experiments and findings. In medicine, empirical methods were introduced and refined. Scientists founded new medical organizations and journals. German medicine thrived on this combination of scientific inquiry with clinically-based research and teaching. All that was new and important in physiology, pathology, medical chemistry, and clinical medicine was the work of German scientists and physicians. Berlin, Vienna, and Leipzig overshadowed Paris.

Rudolf Virchow

The medical sciences also drew on the talented doctors who directed university medical training. Rudolf Virchow (1842-1902), a founder of cellular pathology, transformed thinking in nearly every branch of medicine. Robert Koch (1843-1910) isolated the tuberculosis bacillus. Bernhard von Langenbeck (1810-1887) founded an important German school of surgery with an emphasis on physiology. He established both a periodical, the Archiv fur Klinische Chirurgie, and the German Surgical Society. Among his students were Friedrich Trendelenburg (1844-1924) and Theodor Billroth (1829-1894).

William Halsted

As the new center for medical science, German education and training attracted students worldwide. After the Civil War ended in 1865, students from the United States, many of them of German origin, enrolled in German universities. There they had the opportunity to gain laboratory experience and conduct basic investigations. The majority of students from North America took part in private postgraduate clinical courses, many of which were given in English, especially in Berlin and Vienna. Of the 703 Americans listed in Fischer's Biographical Dictionary of Leading Physicians of the Last Fifty Years published in 1932, 235 (33 percent) had studied in German-speaking countries. According to Kelly's Dictionary of American Medical Biography (1928), 126 of 313 (40 percent) of American physicians born between 1850 and 1890 received their training in Germany.

William S. Halsted (1852-1922), for example, who later established a leading American school of surgery, spent two years in Europe where he worked with Billroth in Vienna, Ernst von Bergmann (1836-1907) in Berlin, and Johannes Mikulicz (1850-1905) in Breslau. He also took courses in embryology and histology. When Halsted returned to the United States, he modeled the residency training program at Johns Hopkins after the German system, the first program of its kind in the country.

Theodor Billroth operating

All pictures:

Further reading:

(Jean-Charles) SOURMA, Jacques POULET, (Marcel) MARTINY et al. Histoire de la Medicine, de la Pharmacie. German ed. Vol 1 (1980) - 9 (1984). Richard TOELLNER, Illustrierte Geschichte der Medizin (Salzburg: Andreas Verlag, 1990).

Thomas Neville BONNER. American Doctors and German Universities: A Chapter in International Intellectual Relations 1870-1914 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963); K.H. SOERGEL and A. SCHULTE-BOCKHOLT, "Innere Medizin in Deutschland und USA - wechselseitige Einfluss," in Internisten und Innere Medizin im 20. Jahrhundert, edited by Meinhard CLASSEN (Munich: Urban & Schwarzenberg, 1994), 546-565.

Wolfgang Uwe Eckard, Christoph Gradmann. Ärzte Lexikon. (Berlin, Heidelberg, Springer Verlag, 2007).

Grzegorz S. Lityński. Highlights in the History of Laparoscopy, chapter 1 (Frankfurt/Main: Bernert Verlag, 1996).


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