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Emil du Bois-Reymond

Neuroscience, Self, and Society in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Gabriel Finkelstein

Publication Year: 2013

Emil du Bois-Reymond is the most important forgotten intellectual of the nineteenth century. In his own time (1818--1896) du Bois-Reymond grew famous in his native Germany and beyond for his groundbreaking research in neuroscience and his provocative addresses on politics and culture. This biography by Gabriel Finkelstein draws on personal papers, published writings, and contemporary responses to tell the story of a major scientific figure. Du Bois-Reymond's discovery of the electrical transmission of nerve signals, his innovations in laboratory instrumentation, and his reductionist methodology all helped lay the foundations of modern neuroscience.In addition to describing the pioneering experiments that earned du Bois-Reymond a seat in the Prussian Academy of Sciences and a professorship at the University of Berlin, Finkelstein recounts du Bois-Reymond's family origins, private life, public service, and lasting influence. Du Bois-Reymond's public lectures made him a celebrity. In talks that touched on science, philosophy, history, and literature, he introduced Darwin to German students (triggering two days of debate in the Prussian parliament); asked, on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, whether France had forfeited its right to exist; and proclaimed the mystery of consciousness, heralding the age of doubt. The first modern biography of du Bois-Reymond in any language, this book recovers an important chapter in the history of science, the history of ideas, and the history of Germany.

Published by: The MIT Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Quote

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This is the first scholarly biography of Emil du Bois-Reymond. Since it is based on primary sources, I have retained original spellings. Except where I have noted otherwise, the translations are my own. Limitations of space have prevented me from citing most of the secondary material that I consulted to prepare this work, ...


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pp. xi-xiv

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pp. xv-xviii

Emil du Bois-Reymond is the most important forgotten intellectual of the nineteenth century. Born in 1818 (the same year as Ivan Turgenev, Karl Marx, Jacob Burckhardt, Emily Brontë , James Froude, Ignaz Semmelweis, and Frederick Douglass), du Bois-Reymond achieved international celebrity for his research in neuroscience ...

I. Beginnings

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1. Childhood

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pp. 3-14

The capital of Prussia came late to European prominence. Founded in 1237 as a fishing village, it remained small and unimportant until 1640, when the first of a series of talented and ambitious rulers began building Prussia into a modern state. Berlin grew apace. ...

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2. Youth

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pp. 15-28

In 1810, when Wilhelm von Humboldt founded the University of Berlin, he envisioned an institution of higher education that would not only respond to the practical needs of the Prussian state but also serve the cultural aspirations of the German nation. Exactly how this was to be realized in practice was left unclear. ...

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3. Apprenticeship

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pp. 29-54

Practical training in science drew Emil du Bois-Reymond home to study in Berlin, and he made certain to attend an experimental course that fall of 1838. The question was, which one? His first choice was Heinrich Rose’s course in chemistry.1 Rose had studied in Stockholm in the famous laboratory of Jöns Jacob Berzelius, ...

II. Experiments

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4. Science

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pp. 57-76

Sometime early in the spring of 1841, Johannes Müller handed Emil du Bois-Reymond a copy of Carlo Matteucci’s latest essay, “On the Electrical Phenomena of Animals,” and asked him to look into it. The topic was ideally suited to Emil’s interests and capabilities—“made for him,” according to Müller. ...

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5. Revolution

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pp. 77-96

Du Bois-Reymond encountered the last of his academic hurdles in the spring of 1843. Having completed his course work and military service the previous fall, and having arranged for Alexander von Humboldt to pass a translation of his “ Abstract ” on to the French Academy of Sciences, he concentrated on finishing a short dissertation, ...

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6. Paris

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pp. 97-114

Walter Benjamin called Paris the capital of the nineteenth century. For Emil du Bois-Reymond, it was the capital of nineteenth-century science. In notability, concentration, and glamour, no city surpassed its institutions and facilities. The French metropolis was the grand theater of scientific performance, ...

III. Life

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7. Love

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pp. 117-138

After his trip to Paris, du Bois-Reymond fell into depression. His mood mirrored the times. The 1850s have generally been viewed as a somber period in Germany—especially in Prussia, where the shock of the Revolution drove Friedrich Wilhelm IV into a lasting funk. The king, who had always been devout, found solace in Christian mysticism; ...

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8. Marriage and Career

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pp. 139-170

The letters Emil du Bois-Reymond sent to Jeannette Claude during his year of engagement excelled in tone, description, and subject. In this he matched the skill of his contemporaries, for whom correspondence was an indispensable refinement. What distinguished du Bois-Reymond’s writing to his fiancée was its introspection: ...

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9. Public and Private

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pp. 171-204

The first half of du Bois-Reymond’s life rewarded him with the signs of conventional happiness: recognition in his profession, love of wife and children, and wealth beyond concern. But convention never satisfied his ambition. He had always wanted to lead, and tenure made that possible. ...

IV. Fame

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10. Politics and History

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pp. 207-232

Du Bois-Reymond’s speeches found an enormous response. Crowds listened to him as dean and rector of the university, as perpetual secretary of the Academy of Sciences, as keynote speaker at annual meetings of the Congress of German Scientists and Physicians, as a guest of the Royal Institution, and as a star of the Urania, a popular theater of science in Berlin. ...

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11. Goethe and Darwin

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pp. 233-264

Du Bois-Reymond’s addresses on literature and art engendered as much controversy as his writings on politics and history. The first of these, delivered on 26 March 1874, proposed the establishment of an “Imperial Academy of German” to counter the effects of wealth and power in the capital. ...

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12. Limits

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pp. 265-290

The most famous of du Bois-Reymond’s speeches was delivered to a plenary session of the Congress of German Scientists and Physicians in Leipzig on 14 August 1872. The occasion was the golden jubilee of the organization, and in spite of the demands of his office as dean, du Bois-Reymond accepted an invitation to prepare a short talk on “The Limits of Science.” ...


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pp. 291-358


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pp. 359-362

E-ISBN-13: 9780262314848
E-ISBN-10: 0262314843
Print-ISBN-13: 9780262019507

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 862370269
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Emil du Bois-Reymond

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Subject Headings

  • Physiologists -- Germany -- Biography.
  • Physiology, Experimental -- History -- 19th century.
  • Neurosciences -- Philosophy -- History -- 19th century.
  • Du Bois-Reymond, Emil, 1818-1896.
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