Today, a medical giant fights his phantoms. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Albrecht Haller was born in
Switzerland in 1708. He lived a strange life in
what was already an epoch of strange geniuses.
Haller's genius was soon apparent. As with many
smart people, his terrible need for approval
surfaced early and lingered long.
Haller finished medical school at Leiden when he
was 19. Then he went back to Bern. He tried to find
a professorship in history and rhetoric. He did
some lecturing on anatomy. He also walked the
mountains writing poetry.
The poetry wasn't great. But Germany had yet to
give us great poets. Haller published his book of
poems when he was 40. It went through at least nine
editions. It was very popular.
The medical school at Göttingen finally gave
Haller a position. He stayed there 17 years. It was
there he rewrote physiology. He produced his
monumental text on the subject. That text was still
a major medical source book when your
great-grand-parents were in school.
Haller revolutionized our knowledge of blood flow
and heart action. He clarified the relation between
respiration and blood flow. He explained nerve
action in muscles. He gave us new insights into
human reproduction and birth defects.
Then, at 45, he did a strange thing. He quit his
academic job to accept the modest post of Court
Bailiff in Bern. The greatest physiologist of his
age went back home to count votes.
It makes sense only in the light of Haller's inner
torment. He craved acceptance in his own town. He
was tormented by religious doubts and
self-incrimination. He'd left a litter of broken
friendships in Germany. Now he did good work in his
new post. Then he took charge of a local salt
works. That, said one biographer, was a small
kingdom which he ruled well.
He kept writing on physiology, but he never went
back to the university. He wrote several novels.
They were well received.
While Haller was still young -- only 28 -- his
first wife, Mariane, had died of a venereal
disease. Where did she get it? What did it mean?
His poetry pours out his pain. "How can I think of
you without weeping," he cries. But in his diary he
agonizes over whether she's in Heaven or Hell.
In the end, it is his physiology that soars. And
that was simply the greatest part of many
accomplishments. I wish I could say that the
inventive mind is always a contented mind. It is
not, of course. Sometimes it turns on itself. It
invents discontent. Haller owned one of the great
minds of all time. I wish I could tell you that it
was his friend. But I cannot.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Haller, A., First Lines of Physiology.
New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1966. (This is a
reprint of the 1786 English edition, with a fine
Introduction by Lester S. King.)
von Haller, A., Versuch Schweizerischer
Gedichte. Bern: neu verlegt bei Herbert
Lang, 1969. (This is a facsimile of the 9th edition
of Haller's poetry, published in 1762.)
Hintsche, E., Haller, (Victor) Albrecht von.
Dictionary of Scientific Biography.
(C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's Sons,
I am grateful to Howard Cornelsen of KUHF-FM,
Houston, for his help in understanding Haller's
German texts and their implications.
For more on Haller, check out:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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