Sunday, March 27, 2016

Goethe's discovery

On this day in 1784, Goethe reported to Herder his discovery of the intermaxillary bone in humans:

Ich habe gefunden—weder Gold noch Silber, aber was mir eine unsägliche Freude macht—das os intermaxillare am Menschen! Ich verglich mit Lodern Menschen- und Tierschädel, kam auf die Spur und siehe da ist es. Nur bitt’ ich Dich, laß Dich nichts merken, denn es muß geheim behandelt werden.

He later wrote an essay on his discovery: “Dem Menschen wie den Tieren ist ein Zwischenknochen der obern Kinnlade zuzuschreiben.”

As Karl Fink has written in his book Goethe's History of Science, 1784 marked for Goethe "the beginning of serious writing in the field of comparative anatomy," beginning with the essay on osteology. It was also the first of his scientific writings that he made available to scientists in the field, unlike his earlier writings on geology. Besides Herder, he also wrote to Knebel, Merck, and Justus Loder. It was through Merck, according to Fink, that the essay, in abridged form, became known to Peter Camper, Blumenbach, and Samuel Sömmerring. The full text, however, along with Goethe's illustrations, did not appear in print until 1831. Thus, Goethe only got credit, according to Fink again, for discovering the bone in various animals, including the walrus. As Fink writes: "The thesis of the connecting link was lost in an age not ready for the implications of the anatomical relationship of man and animal."

Picture credit: Bayern2/Angela Smets

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