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To historians of nineteenth-century German science and medicine, Robert Remak is best known for his work on the nervous system, embryology, and the cell theory, [End Page 122] as well as his researches into the therapeutic uses of galvanism. A contemporary and frequent rival of Rudolf Virchow (he competed twice with Virchow for university appointments, and lost both times), the Polish-born Remak was among the highly talented group of individuals who studied with Johannes Müller at the University of Berlin in the 1830s and 1840s. Most of these men went on to fill prestigious faculty positions throughout the German university system; Remak, on the other hand, because he was a Jew, had a less than stellar career. Not until 1847—nine years after receiving the M.D.—did he gain the right to lecture at the university, and he had to wait another nine years before being promoted to associate professor (Professor extraordinarius). Indeed, Remak’s difficulties are frequently seen as indicative of the problems faced by Jews who wished to join the German academic elite in the nineteenth century.
In this thoughtful and well-written biography, Heinz-Peter Schmiedebach builds on earlier interpretations of Remak’s life and work, but he moves beyond them as well. By incorporating newly uncovered archival material and by exploring in great detail the political and scientific circles in which Remak traveled, Schmiedebach succeeds in rendering a more highly nuanced picture of the choices he made and the difficulties he encountered in the course of his career. Schmiedebach challenges, for example, earlier interpretations of Remak as a nationalist (whether Polish or German), arguing instead that Remak’s primary commitment was to the democratic rights of any people to choose their own government; he develops at great length Remak’s sometimes liberal, sometimes radical stance on questions of medical reform; and he argues convincingly that Remak’s difficult career path resulted not only from his religious affiliation but from his scholarly reputation as well. Remak’s microscopical studies won him the respect of the academic community, but his failure to receive an academic appointment eventually led him to shift his research focus to the study of electrotherapy. Schmiedebach argues that Remak may very well have attributed the success of the Jewish clinician Ludwig Traube in moving up the academic ladder to his more practical research emphasis. Unfortunately, electrotherapy was a highly controversial field—with the result that whatever interest the ministry may have shown in Remak’s work was more than offset by the loss of respect he suffered within the scholarly community.
First and foremost an intellectual biography, this book offers a comprehensive study of Remak’s scientific researches in histology, embryology, neurology, and galvanism. It is, however, far from a narrow study of Remak’s scholarly contributions. Schmiedebach is as concerned with context as with content, whether he is exploring the place of Remak’s scientific work within a larger community of European scholars interested in the relationship between form and function, or whether he is elaborating on the social and political upheavals of the 1840s, the medical reform movement, university politics, or the rise of the German middle class with specific reference to the emancipation of the Jews. If I have any lament, it is that he adopted a cautious approach in writing this biography, choosing to organize the material on Remak’s political and social engagements, his scientific work, and his academic career into separate chapters rather than integrating them throughout the book. This may have made for a neater study, but [End Page 123] Schmiedebach also missed thereby an opportunity to explore in greater depth the intricate links between social movements, institutional structures, political ideas, and the nature and content of scientific research.