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Theodor Schwann: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Theodor Schwann is credited with describing the cell theory and is considered the founder of modern histology. In this lesson we'll take a look at his life and examine a few of his more memorable quotes.

Cell Theory

The basic idea behind the cell theory is that every living thing is made of cells. You are made of cells, the carrots you ate for lunch are made of cells, and your dog is made of cells. But this wasn't always a known fact, just like at one time people thought the earth was flat and you could fall off the edge.

The man responsible for the cell theory is Theodor Schwann, a German biologist who lived from 1810 to 1882. Schwann's theory may sound simple, but it revolutionized the fields of anatomy and physiology, and it pioneered modern histology. Schwann was also known for his discovery of pepsin, which was the first digestive enzyme prepared from animal tissue.

Schwann's Career

Schwann was born in Germany in December of 1810. He studied at the Jesuits' College at Cologne, then at the University of Bonn, followed by the University of Würzburg (which is where he began studying medicine), and finally the University of Berlin, where he graduated with a medical degree in 1834.

It was during his time at the University of Berlin that he was convinced by the physiologist Johannes Müller, with whom he had previously worked at the University of Bonn, to pursue a scientific career. Schwann began working under Müller and proved to be an excellent scientist through a number of experiments and studies.

Theodore Schwann was a pioneer in histology
Theodor Schwann

A few years after graduating, Schwann began to familiarize himself with the work of Matthias Schleiden. Schleiden had proposed a cell theory based on his work with plant cells, and Schwann applied this to animal tissues, verifying the existence of cells and tracing the development of adult animal tissues back to embryonic stages. The next year, in 1839, Schwann's work Microscopical Research into the Accordance in the Structure and Growth of Animals and Plants was published. In this work Schwann summarized his research on cells and his own cell theory.

That same year, Schwann was appointed professor of anatomy at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He was there until 1848, when he became professor at the University of Liège, which is where he remained until he retired in 1880.

Other Theories

Schwann was very interested in cells, and he had some other theories regarding them. These included the fact that cells consist of themselves plus their 'secretions', that cells have independent lives, and that the life of a cell is subject to the life of the organism.

Schwann also coined the term 'metabolism', from the chemical changes in the components of the cell itself or the cytoplasm, which he called 'metabolic phenomena'. We now refer to 'metabolism' as all of the chemical processes that are involved in energy in the body, but our modern terminology comes from Schwann's understanding and description.

One thing that Schwann understood about cells is that there are different types
red blood cells

Additionally, Schwann also classified tissues into five separate groups. These were:

  • separate, independent cells (such as blood cells)
  • compacted, independent cells (such as skin cells)
  • cells that have come together as a whole (such as cartilage, bone, and tooth cells)
  • elongated fibrous cells (such as tendons and ligaments)
  • cells formed by wall and cavity fusion (such as muscle cells)

Quotes of Theodor Schwann

Schwann was dedicated to his work and as a teacher was loved by his students. We can see his dedication and thorough understanding of his work in quotes that have been attributed to him, many of which come from his published works. These include:

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