Carl, Freiherr von Rokitansky - Encyclopedia

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CARL ROKITANSKY, FREIHERR VON (1804-1878), the founder of the Vienna school of pathological anatomy, was born on the 19th of February 1804 at KOniggratz in Bohemia. He studied medicine at Prague and at Vienna, graduating at the latter place in 1828. Soon afterwards he became assistant to Johann Wagner, the professor of pathological anatomy, and succeeded him in 1834 as prosector, being at the same time made extraordinary professor. It was not until ten years later (1844) that he reached the rank of full professor. To his duties as a teacher he added in 1847 the onerous office of medico-legal anatomist to the city, and from 1863 he filled an influential office in the ministry of education and public worship, wherein he had to advise on all routine matters of medical teaching, including patronage. A seat in the upper house of the Reichsrath rewarded his public labours in 1867, and on his retirement from all his offices in 1874 he was made a commander of the Order of Leopold. He joined the Imperial Academy of Sciences as a member in 1848, and became its president in 1869. He was president also of the medical society of the Austrian capital and an honorary member of many foreign societies. On his retirement at the age of seventy his colleagues celebrated the occasion by a function in the aula of the university, where his bust was unveiled. In his leave-taking speech he said that work had always been a pleasure to him and pleasures mostly a toil. His death in Vienna on the 23rd of July 1878 elicited many genuine expressions of affection and of esteem for his upright character. Two of his sons became professors at Vienna, one of astronomy and another of medicine, while a third gained distinction on the lyric stage.

With Rokitansky's name is associated the second great period of the medical school of Vienna, its first success having been identified with the liberal patronage of it by Maria Theresa and with the fame of Van Swieten, whom the empress had attracted thither from Leiden. The basis of its second reputation was morbid anatomy, together with the precision of clinical diagnosis dependent thereon, and associated with the labours of Rokitansky's lifelong friend, Joseph Skoda (1805-1881). The anatomical vogue had begun under Wagner while Rokitansky was still a student; but it reached its highest point while the latter was assistant in the dead-house and afterwards prosector and professor. The enthusiasm for the post-mortem study of disease brought one very serious consequence at the outset, in the enormous increase of the deathrate from puerperal fever in the lying-in wards of the general hospital. A comparison between the slight mortality in the wards that were afterwards reserved for the training of midwives and the excessive mortality in those set apart for the training of students proved that the cause was the conveyance of infection from the dead-house by the hands of the latter. The precautions introduced by I. P. Semmelweiss in 1847 proved adequate in removing that grave reproach from the study of morbid anatomy. Another and more lasting consequence of the assiduous pursuit of post-mortem study, counterbalancing somewhat the advantage of a more precise and localized diagnosis, was the loss of faith in the power of drugs to remedy the textural changes - the so-called "nihilism" of the Vienna school. The immediate outcome of Rokitansky's close application to the work of the dead-house was his Handbuch der pathologischen Anatomie (1842-46), in 3 vols., of which the first was published last. The value of the work lies in the second and third volumes, containing succinct descriptions of the visible changes and abnormalities in the several organs and parts of the body. Whenever Rokitansky touched the vital problems of general pathology, as he did in the postponed first volume, he revealed a metaphysical bent, which was strong in him behind all his undoubted powers of outward observation and accurate description. Being a few years too soon to profit by the microscopic movement which led to the cellular pathology, he endeavoured to reconcile the old humoral doctrine with his anatomical observations, and to read a new meaning into the doctrine of the various dyscrasias. In 1862 he entered into possession of a new pathological institute, in which he found means, for the first time, to display his extensive collection of specimens in a museum. Although he had no direct share in the newer developments of pathology, he was far from indifferent or reactionary towards them; indeed, the laboratories and chairs for microscopic and experimental pathology and for pathological chemistry were warmly encouraged and aided by him.

Next to his Handbuch, of which the Sydenham Society published an English translation in 4 vols. (1849-52), his most important writings were four memoirs in the Denkschriften of the Vienna Academy of Sciences (on the anatomy of goitre, cysts, diseases of arteries, and defects in the septa of the heart), the last as late as 1875. Other papers of less importance brought up the total of his writings to thirty-eight, including three addresses of a philosophical turn, on "Freedom of Inquiry" (1862), "The Independent Value of Knowledge" (1867) and "The Solidarity of Animal Life" (1869).

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