Why you shouldn't let your students write your obituary: the case of Johannes Müller

Laura OTIS
Department of English, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
lotis AT emory.edu

Early in their careers, Jakob Henle, Theodor Schwann, Emil du Bois-Reymond, Hermann Helmholtz, Rudolf Virchow, Robert Remak, and Ernst Haeckel all studied with the brilliant anatomist and physiologist, Johannes Müller. Each of these scientists described him in a different way, so that we have been left with a series of contrasting portraits. When one compares du Bois-Reymond’s and Virchow’s memorial addresses for Müller, as historian of science Nicholas Jardine has pointed out, it is sometimes hard to believe that they are describing the same investigator.

For the most part, however, historians have quoted the students’ accounts as though they offered transparent windows into Müller’s lab, providing objective depictions of his science. Jardine’s and Gabriel Finkelstein’s work on du Bois-Reymond and Frederic L. Holmes’s work on Helmholtz constitute important exceptions. Just as nineteenth-century elegies to French Academicians promoted the speaker’s science, as Dorinda Outram has shown, the students’ evaluations of Johannes Müller’s investigations reflected their own evolving assumptions about how science should be done. Their comments on Müller reveal as much about their own experiments as they do about their teacher’s.

In a systematic case study, I have compared these seven students’ comments on Müller’s science, examining them in light of each pupil’s relationship with Müller, his socio-economic background, the kind of job that he obtained, and the investigations that he later performed. I have found that their portraits of Müller say more about the students than they do about the mentor. I do not support the constructivist position that there is no truth about Müller, only narratives, but I believe that the truth about Müller’s science can be approached only by carefully comparing the students’ accounts and examining their reasons for writing.

Session VIII.  Sources (Books and Brains)
Friday, 22 June 2007, 9:30 - 10:00 am

12th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences   (ISHN)
Los Angeles, California, USA, 19-23 June 2007