Joseph Hyrtl Biography (1810-1894)


Joseph Hyrtl earned an international reputation as a technical anatomist. Inthe mid-nineteenth century, the field of medicine depended heavily on anatomical discoveries, and Hyrtl's work was key to medical progress. Hyrtl was a lifelong academic, but the money he earned from producing anatomical supplies made him rich.

Hyrtl was born in Kismarton, Hungary, which is now part of Austria, and studied medicine in Vienna, serving as prosector (one who performs dissections for anatomical demonstrations) for the anatomist Joseph Berres. While hewas still a student, Hyrtl taught anatomy to practitioners in the community.When he completed his doctorate in 1835, his dissertation advocated the studyof anatomy and clinical instruction, seeing no value in conducting physiological experiments on animals. Hyrtl continued as prosector for another two years before accepting an anatomy professorship in Prague. In 1845, Hyrtl returned to teach anatomy at his alma mater in Vienna. He was awarded the teachingposition that became vacant on the death of his old teacher, Berres. Hyrtl added to the demonstration collections, published frequently on his areas of research and taught applied anatomy to physicians.

Hyrtl published his first book, Handbook of Human Anatomy, in 1846, and well received being translated into all of the major languages and eventually went to 20 editions. Hyrtl reasoned that he had already provided his students with sketches and drawings at every lecture, so the book had no illustrations. The text focused on anatomical structure and function, which were mostimportant to the practitioner.

In 1847, Hyrtl published the widely read Handbook of Topographical Anatomy, which organized the study of anatomy by region of the body. This text introduced topographical anatomy in Germany and established it as a separate discipline.

Hyrtl produced and sold specialized anatomical preparations that were used byscientists and all major anatomical museums. To better study anatomical structure, he used a preparation to inject vessels and bone cavities with a material that made them stiff. He then destroyed the adjacent bones or soft tissue. The technique enabled Hyrtl to study comparative anatomy across different species. Hyrtl's primary interest was anatomy, so he left the study of tissuesto others. In 1860, Hyrtl published a manual on dissection and his text on corrosive anatomy came out in 1873. In his academic career, Hyrtl also improved and expanded the Anatomical Museum although the work was interrupted by political unrest in the 1850s.

During his tenure in Vienna, Hyrtl grew distant from his colleagues, who complained about his strong ambition and irritability. During the 30 years Hyrtlspent on the Viennese medical faculty, he was never chosen to serve as dean,a reflection on his strained relations with colleagues. In the lecture hall,Hyrtl had a flair for drama and liked to draw together concepts from history,scientific terminology, surgery and physiology. His students enjoyed the unusual approach and Hyrtl's lectures were always well attended. In the academicyear 1864-1865, the year of the university's 500th anniversary, Hyrtl was asked to serve as rector.

Hyrtl was primarily interested in bone structure and the circulation of blood. He wrote about the characteristics of blood vessels in birds and amphibiansand how these differed from human veins and arteries. In his comparative anatomy research, Hyrtl looked at patterns in veins, and the structure of the portal vein of the adrenal gland. He was interested in the role of cartilage inthe knee, and the design of the hip joint.

When Hyrtl examined nonvascular hearts, his theories about coronary arteriesconflicted with those of physiology professor Ernst von Brücke, leadingto a bitter dispute. Although Hyrtl's hypotheses were later verified, the conflict wore him down. Hyrtl's comparative anatomy research of the ear led himto a previously unreported muscle of the incus which lay in an area which came to be known as Hyrtl's recess.

Hyrtl left the university in 1874, a little ahead of the customary retirementage, and spent the next 20 years writing about the history of anatomical terminology. Through the sale of his anatomic preparations, Hyrtl accumulated asubstantial amount of money. After his death in Austria, Hyrtl's fortune wasgiven to deserving medical students, an orphanage, a boarding school, and a church.

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