Haller, (Victor) Albrecht von
Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777) was one of the great heroic figures of early biology. He is considered the father of neurology, the study of the nervous system. Born in Bern, Switzerland, Haller was not a healthy child, but he displayed great intellectual talents at an early age. He wrote scholarly articles at the age of eight and by the age of ten had completed a Greek dictionary. Haller enrolled as a medical student at the University of Leyden and earned his degree at the age of 19. Haller began his own medical practice in 1729 at the age of 21, and continued in private practice until 1736. He was then appointed Professor of Anatomy, Botany, and Medicine at the newly created University of Gottingen.
Haller Studies Nerves and Muscles
Haller had interests and talents in a wide range of fields, but he is probably best known for his work on nerves and muscles. When he began his research, little was known about the structure and function of nerves or about their control of muscles. A popular theory of the time held that nerves were hollow tubes through which a spirit or fluid flowed. Haller rejected this idea, however, since no one had ever been able to locate or identify such a spirit or fluid.
Instead, Haller concentrated on two specific reactions that seemed to involve the nerves: irritability and sensibility. By irritability Haller meant the contraction of a muscle that occurs when a stimulus is applied to the muscle, such as when one feels pain from a hot object, and the muscles move one's arm, leg, etc., away from the heat. Haller found that irritability increases when the stimulus is applied to the nerve connected to a muscle, so he concluded that the stimulus was transmitted from the nerve to the muscle.
In his study of sensibility, testing to see which body tissues could "feel," Haller found that ordinary tissue does not respond to stimuli, but that nerves do. He showed that stimuli applied to nerve endings traveled through the body, into the spinal column, and eventually into the brain. By removing certain parts of the brain, he was then able to show how each part affects specific muscular actions.
Haller continued his research at Gottingen until 1753, when he returned to Bern. He spent the remaining twenty years of his life in research, writing, and government service until he died in Bern on December 17, 1777.