1865: A Trailblazing Researcher of the Nervous System Dies

Robert Remak made major contributions to neurology and embryology but was hampered by anti-Semitism and a younger rival who took credit for his work.

David Green
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Robert Remak.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green

August 29, 1865, is the day on which Robert Remak, a pioneering medical researcher who made major contributions to the fields of neurology and embryology, died, at the age of 50.

Remak was born in Posen (today, Poznan, Poland), on July 26, 1815, shortly after the Duchy of Poznan had been incorporated into Prussia, as decided by the Conference of Vienna. He was the oldest of five children of Salomon Meyer Remak, who ran a tobacconist’s shop and lottery bureau, and his wife Friederike Caro.

In 1833, after primary and secondary studies in his hometown, Remak matriculated at the University of Berlin, something made possible by the fact that he was now a Prussian citizen. There, with access to good teachers and a microscope, he was encouraged to examine the makeup of nerve fibers. One of his first observations was that fibers of the autonomic nervous system are unmyelinated – meaning they lack myelin, the fatty white sheath that serves as the outer layer of most nerves. This was an important step in understanding the development and differentiation of nerve cells, and the gray fiber type he identified was named for him.

After graduating from Friedrich-Wilhelm University of Berlin, Remak found that, as a Jew, he was not permitted to teach there. Despite an appeal even to the king, in which he went to the trouble of explaining why it was inappropriate to expect him to convert in order to receive an academic appointment, his requests to teach were denied. It was only in 1847 that he was awarded a lectureship at the university, making him the first Jew to have that privilege. So momentous was the appointment that his first lecture was covered in the newspapers of the day. Only 12 years later was Remak, who by this point had a reputation as a brilliant researcher, made a full professor.

In the meantime, in his work in the lab of Johann Lukas Schonlein, at the Charite Hospital, Remak studied the development of germ layers in tissue growth. Thedor Schwann, the scientist who posited that cells were the basic building block of plant and animal tissues, had not succeeded in identifying the basis for cell production. It was, rather, Remak who confirmed that cells copy themselves by dividing and reproducing, rather than through, say, spontaneous generation. In his work with chick and frog embryos, Remak came up with the evidence proving that embryonic tissue develops in three separate layers. He later postulated – correctly – that cell division is continuous and begins in the cell’s nucleus.

Remak’s work in the 1840s and ‘50s was crucial to understanding the process of cell development and differentiation. Yet his book on embryology was overlooked, and his discoveries were only accepted after being repeated by his colleague Rudolf Virchow. Virchow was younger than Remak, but well-placed socially, and although he was initially dubious about Remak’s assertion that cells replicated by duplication, he eventually saw that he was right and, in 1855, republished the finding under his own name. It was he who received initial credit for Remak’s findings. Only several years later did Virchow reluctantly acknowledge Remak for his work.

Late in his career, Remak also studied the use of electrotherapy in treating neuromuscular diseases. He proposed using a galavanic (low-currency) current in place of the faradic (high-currency) current then preferred.

Robert Remak married Feodore Meyer, the daughter of a Berlin banker. The couple had two sons. One of them, Ernst Remak, was also a neurological researcher, whose academic progress was hampered significantly by his Jewish background. Ernst’s son Robert Remak, Jr. (born 1888), was a mathematician. After being stripped of his right to teach in 1933, he was arrested on Kristallnacht, in November 1938. Despite efforts by himself and his family to get flee Europe, he died in Auschwitz in 1942.

The grandfather, Robert Remak, Sr., died on this date in 1865, in Bad Kissingen, Germany.