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Theodor Schwann

  Theodor Schwann (December 7, 1810 – January 11, 1882) was a German physiologist, histologist and cytologist.

His many contributions to biology include the development of cell theory, the discovery of Schwann cells in the peripheral nervous system, the discovery and study of pepsin, the discovery of the organic nature of yeast, and the invention of the term metabolism.


Schwann was born in Neuss. His father was a goldsmith, later a printer. Schwann studied at the Jesuits College in Cologne, and then at Bonn, where he met J. P. Müller.

It was during the four years spent under the influence of Müller at Berlin that all Schwann's really valuable work was done. Müller was at this time preparing his great book on physiology, and Schwann assisted him in the experimental work required. Schwann's attention was directed to the nervous and muscular tissues. Besides making such histological discoveries as that of the envelope of the nerve fibers which now bears his name, he initiated those researches in muscular contractility since so elaborately worked out by Du Bois-Reymond and many others.

Schwann died in Cologne.

Vitalism and germ theory

Schwann was thus the first of Müller's pupils who broke with the traditional vitalism and worked towards a physico-chemical explanation of life.

Müller also directed Schwann's attention to the process of digestion, which Schwann showed in 1837 to depend essentially on the presence of a ferment he called pepsin. Schwann also examined the question of spontaneous generation, which led to its eventual disproof. In the course of his experiments, he discovered the organic nature of yeast. In fact the whole germ theory of Pasteur, as well as its antiseptic applications by Lister, can be traced to Schwann's influence.


Once, when Schwann was dining with Matthias Jakob Schleiden (who in 1837 had viewed and stated that new plant cells formed from the nuclei of old plant cells) in 1839, the conversation turned on the nuclei of plants and animal cells. Schwann remembered seeing similar structures in the cells of the notochord (as had been shown by Müller) and instantly realized the importance of connecting the two phenomena. The resemblance was confirmed without delay by both observers, and the results soon appeared in his famous Microscopic Investigations on the Accordance in the Structure and Growth of Plants and Animals [scanned source](Berlin, 1839; trans. Sydenham Society, 1847). Thus cell theory was definitely constituted. In the course of his verification of cell theory, in which Schwann traversed the whole field of histology, he proved the cellular origin and development of the most highly differentiated tissues including nails, feathers, and tooth enamel.

His generalization became the foundation of modern histology, and in the hands of Rudolf Virchow (whose cellular pathology was an inevitable deduction from Schwann) afforded the means of placing modern pathology on a truly scientific basis.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Theodor_Schwann". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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