Albrecht von Haller: 18th Century Scientist, Poet, Novelist and Church Planter

I’ve mentioned the great s18th century Swiss scientist and anatomist, Albrech von Haller, several times on this blog. Von Haller came from Berne in Switzerland, and was a pupil of the great Dutch scientist and doctor, Boerhaave. He was a student at the universities of Tubingen and Leyden. After graduating, he moved to London and Paris before finally accepting a post of Gottingen University, which had only recently been founded. He simulataneously occupied the chairs of anatomy, botany and medicine there for 17 years. It was under his management that Gottingen university managed to become one of the leading centres for medical research and teaching in Germany, so that it was compared to Leyden in the Netherlands. While at Gottingen he wrote 13,000 scientific papers. He also established botanical gardens, wrote a flora of Switzerland, and the first textbook solely devoted to physiology. This was in turn greatly expanded into the eight-volume edition published in 1757. This has led some historians of medicine to see von Haller as the founder of modern physiology. He also wrote novels and poetry. He was a man of deep religious faith. He founded churches, and his best-known poem, Die Alpen (The Alps) of 1729, considers God’s glory in the grandeur of the Swiss mountains. He was an evangelical Protestant with inclinations towards Pietism, but could also be strongly rationalist, so that he has been described as ‘thinking like a rationalist, and believing like a sincere Christian’. Clearly von Haller was a man of deep faith and a scientific and literary genius, who managed to combine literature, science and a deep commitment to Christianity in his career.

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