Open main menu

Emil Heinrich du Bois-Reymond FRSFor HFRSE (7 November 1818 – 26 December 1896) was a German physician and physiologist, the co-discoverer of nerve action potential, and the developer of experimental electrophysiology.

Emil du Bois-Reymond
Born(1818-11-07)7 November 1818
Berlin, Germany
Died26 December 1896(1896-12-26) (aged 78)
Berlin, Germany
Known forNerve action potential
Scientific career
InfluencedEduard Hitzig


Du Bois-Reymond was born in Berlin and spent his working life there. One of his younger brothers was the mathematician Paul du Bois-Reymond (1831–1889). His father was from Neuchâtel, and his mother was of Huguenot origin.[1]

Educated first at the French College in Berlin, du Bois-Reymond enrolled in the University of Berlin in 1838. He seems to have been uncertain at first as to the topic of his studies, for he was a student of the renowned ecclesiastical historian August Neander, and dallied with geology, but eventually began to study medicine with such zeal and success as to attract the notice of Johannes Peter Müller (1801–1858), a well-known professor of anatomy and physiology.[1]

Müller's earlier studies had been distinctly physiological, but his preferences caused him later to study comparative anatomy. He had, about the time when the young du Bois-Reymond came to his lectures, published his Elements of Physiology, in which the following statement occurs:[2]

"Though there appears to be something in the phenomena of living beings which cannot be explained by ordinary mechanical, physical or chemical laws, much may be so explained, and we may without fear push these explanations as far as we can, so long as we keep to the solid ground of observation and experiment."

During 1840 Müller made du Bois-Reymond his assistant in physiology, and as the beginning of an inquiry gave him a copy of the essay which the Italian Carlo Matteucci had just published on the electric phenomena of animals. This determined the work of du Bois-Reymond's life. He chose as the subject of his graduation thesis Electric fishes, and so commenced a long series of investigations on bioelectricity. The results of these inquiries were made known partly in papers communicated to scientific journals, but also and chiefly by his work Investigations of Animal Electricity, the first part of which was published in 1848, the last in 1884.[2]

Concerning his religious opinions, du Bois-Reymond was an atheist.[3]


Emil du Bois-Reymond c. 1870

Investigations of Animal Electricity may be seen in two ways. On the one hand, it is a record of the exact determination and approximative analysis of the electric phenomena presented by living beings. Viewed from this standpoint, it represents a significant advance in biological knowledge. Du Bois-Reymond built up this branch of science, by inventing or improving methods, by devising new instruments of observation, or by adapting old ones. On the other hand, the volumes in question contain an exposition of a theory. In them Du Bois-Reymond put forward a general conception, now outmoded by the help of which he strove to explain the phenomena which he had observed. He developed the idea that a living tissue, such as muscle, might be regarded as composed of a number of "electric molecules," and that the electric behavior of the muscle was the outcome of the behavior of these elementary units.[2] We now know that these are sodium, potassium and other ions, the gradients of which are responsible for maintaining membrane potentials in excitable cells.[citation needed]

His theory was soon criticized by several contemporary physiologists, such as Ludimar Hermann, who maintained that living untouched tissue, such as muscle, does not generate electric currents at rest unless it has suffered injury.[2] The subsequent controversy was ultimately resolved in 1902 by du Bois-Reymond's student Julius Bernstein, who incorporated parts of both theories into an ionic model of action potential. Thus, du Bois-Reymond's work mainly concerned animal electricity, although he made other physiological inquiries — such as could be studied by physical methods — concerning the phenomena of diffusion, the muscular production of lactic acid, and the development of shocks by electric fishes.

Du Bois-Reymond exerted a great influence as a teacher. In 1858, upon the death of Johannes Müller, the professorship of anatomy and physiology at the University of Berlin was divided into a professorship of human and comparative anatomy, which was given to Karl Bogislaus Reichert (1811–1883), and a professorship of physiology, which was given to du Bois-Reymond. This he held until his death, performing his research for many years, though at first without adequate accommodation. In 1877, the Prussian government granted his wish and provided the university with a modern physiological laboratory. In 1851 he was admitted to the Academy of Sciences of Berlin, and in 1876 he became its perpetual secretary.[2]

For many years du Bois-Reymond and his friend Hermann von Helmholtz, who like him had been a pupil of Johannes Peter Müller, were well-known figures in Berlin. Acceptable at court, they both used their influence for the advancement of science. Du Bois-Reymond, as has been said, had during his earlier years studied topics other than those of physiology and medicine, and during his later years he reviewed some of these in popular lectures to students at the University of Berlin.[2] He owed the largest part of his fame, however, to occasional discourses on Darwinism, literature, history, and philosophy.

The Seven World RiddlesEdit

In 1880 du Bois-Reymond delivered a famous speech to the Berlin Academy of Sciences defining seven "world riddles," some of which, he declared, neither science nor philosophy could ever explain. These "riddles" or "shortcomings" of science are as follows:[4]

  1. the ultimate nature of matter and force,
  2. the origin of motion,
  3. the origin of life,
  4. the "apparently teleological arrangements of nature," not an "absolutely transcendent riddle,"
  5. the origin of simple sensations, "a quite transcendent" question,
  6. the origin of intelligent thought and language, which might be known if the origin of sensations could be known, and
  7. the question of free will.[5]

Concerning numbers 1, 2 and 5 he proclaimed: "Ignorabimus" (we will never know).


  1. ^ a b Chisholm 1911, p. 625.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Chisholm 1911, p. 626.
  3. ^ Meulders, Michel (2010). "5: Helmholtz and the Understanding of Nature". In Laurence Garey (ed.). Helmholtz: From Enlightenment to Neuroscience. MIT Press. p. 74. ISBN 9780262014489. Du Bois-Reymond was a self-proclaimed atheist but more through intimate conviction than logical necessity.
  4. ^ Finkelstein, Gabriel Ward (2013). Emil du Bois-Reymond: Neuroscience, Self, and Society in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. pp. 272–273. ISBN 9780262019507.
  5. ^ Leverette Jr., William E. (1965). "E. L. Youmans' Crusade for Scientific Autonomy and Respectability". American Quarterly. 17 (1): 21. doi:10.2307/2711334. JSTOR 2711334.


External linksEdit