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No. 658:
Albrecht von Haller

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 work.

(Theme music)

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, 1970-1980.

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: