Theodor Schwann

Theodor Schwann

[shvahn; Eng. shwahn]
Schwann, Theodor, 1810-82, German physiologist and histologist. He was a student of J. P. Müller and professor at the universities of Louvain (1838-48) and Liège (from 1848). A cofounder (with Matthias Schleiden) of the cell theory, Schwann extended the work of Schleiden and demonstrated that the cell is the basis of animal as well as of plant tissue, and because he recognized the physiological and the morphological significance of the cell in advance of other 19th-century biologists he may be called the father of cytology. He described the nerve sheath known by his name and demonstrated the living nature of yeasts. Of great influence was his Microscopical Researches … in the Structure and Growth of Animals and Plants (1839, tr. 1847).
Not to be confused with army general Theodore Schwan.

Theodor Schwann (December 7, 1810January 11, 1882) was a German zoologist. 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.

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.He came to discover the cell one day when he was paying particular attention to the cytoplasm of the plant cell he noticed its jelly like consistency and then went on to view the animal cell which did not have one and noted that they had different properties. 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 1837, 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, in which he declared that "All living things are composed of cells and cell products." 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.


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