Bulletin of the History of Medicine 78.1 (2004) 230-231
[Access article in PDF]
Christian Baumann. Der Physiologe Ewald Hering (1834-1918): Curriculum vitae. Deutsche Hochschulschriften, no. 1216. Frankfurt: Dr. Hänsel-Hohenhausen, 2002. 171 pp. €35.00 (3-8267-1216-1).
Ewald Hering (1834-1918), professor of physiology at the University of Prague for twenty-five years before he succeeded Carl Ludwig at the University of Leipzig, is perhaps best known for the contentious battles he fought with Hermann von Helmholtz over several optical theories having to do with color vision and with the control of binocular vision. He is also known as codiscoverer of the Hering-Breuer reflex, which proposes a theory for the regulation of respiration. Christian Baumann's slim biography of Hering offers brief discussions of the physiologist's scientific work, but the author's primary goal is to convey a better sense of the conditions under which Hering worked. To accomplish this, he has mined the relevant archives, uncovering material that describes Hering's work space, the battles he fought to promote his fields of research, and his overall engagement in university politics. A long section, for example, focuses on Hering's brief rectorship at the University of Prague and the role he played in 1882 in helping to bring about the division of the university into two separate institutions, one German and the other Czech.
Baumann, a retired physiologist, has written this biography for ophthalmologists, physiologists, and psychologists who have an interest in individuals who have made important contributions to their fields of research. The book is of less value to historians of medicine, unless one happens to have a particular interest in Hering. Although the author has done a thorough job of documenting all of [End Page 230] Hering's published writings and relevant archival materials, he provides only a superficial examination of Hering's life and work, eschewing almost any analysis. In his final chapter, which he devotes in part to the battle between Hering and Helmholtz over color vision, he does take issue with R. S. Turner's depiction of Hering as a "vicious polemicist" (p. 134), but he does not engage with the substance of Turner's analysis.
In fairness to Baumann, he recognizes his own limitations, acknowledging that this project is radically different from what he has known as an experimental physiologist. His modest hope, as he writes at the end of his introduction, is that some part of the "joy of discovery" he experienced while working on this book will be "transformed into the joy of reading" (p. 10). Judging from the large number of medical-historical books published in Germany by nonspecialists, there would appear to be a market for such works. Perhaps his wish will come true.