Heinrich August Wrisberg (1736–1808): Physician and anatomist



The German Heinrich August Wrisberg made significant contributions to anatomical knowledge during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, very little is known of this early European physician and anatomist. Wrisberg was considered an excellent anatomist and wrote several textbooks in the field. Using standard computer search engines, this report reviews the known literature on this historic figure and notes his multiple contributions to the study of human morphology. Clin. Anat. 27:10–13, 2014. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


Heinrich August Wrisberg (Fig. 1) was born on 28 July 1736 in Sankt Andreasberg, Germany (Dobson, 1962), a small town in the “Harz mountains” near Göttingen (Thode, 1979). Little is known about Wrisberg's family background and details regarding his life remain somewhat obscure. It is known that he often published under the Latinized version of his name, Henricus Augustus Wrisberg. He started studying medicine at the Georg-August-University of Göttingen in 1757. He worked as prosector in the Anatomical Institute from 1762 to 1764 (Thode, 1979). In 1764, he obtained his MD from the University of Göttingen (founded 1734) with a thesis on the phrenic nerve titled De Respiratione Prima Nervo Phrenico et Calore Animali (Eycleshymer and Schoemaker, 1917; Wrisberg, 1763a). He went on to study obstetrics, writing treatises on the anatomy of such structures as the gravid uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and the corpus luteum (Wrisberg, 1783, 1787). He became medical director of the clinic for gynecology and midwifery at the University of Göttingen from 1765 to 1785. He published on respiration, embryology, the trigeminal nerve, and nerves of the abdomen and arm (Alfieri et al., 2010; Toldt, 1926; Wrisberg, 1763b; Wrisberg, 1780). One such publication was titled Ioannis Georgii Roedereri med. et anat. … elementa artis obstetricia (Roederer and Wrisberg, 1766), which he coauthored with Johan Georg Roederer (1726–1763), a German physician and obstetrician. Roederer was director of the obstetrical hospital (“Accouchier House”) of the Georg-August-University of Göttingen, which was the first academic obstetrical hospital in Germany. After Albrecht von Haller (the 2nd Professor of Anatomy at the young University of Göttingen) left Göttingen in 1753, Roederer became Professor of Anatomy and director of the Anatomical Institute (Thode, 1979).

Figure 1.

Drawing of Heinrich August Wrisberg. [Color figure can be viewed in the online issue, which is available at wileyonlinelibrary.com.]

Wrisberg would go on to replace Roederer at the university who died at the age of 36. Another contribution of Wrisberg's was his Descriptio Anatomica Embryonis published in 1768. This text documented Wrisberg's observations of the development of the human based on five cases in which he performed fetal autopsies. Wrisberg also wrote a text on the relationship between the testicles and hernias (1779). It was earlier in 1764, that Wrisberg demonstrated that the embryonic protrusion of the gut through the umbilicus was a normal process (Robinson, 1898). He also wrote on pathological entities including rabies (Heine, 1935).

A notable influence in Wrisberg's life was Georg Gottlob Richter (1694–1773). Richter, a professor of medicine, philosophy, and philology was Wrisberg's teacher at the University of Göttingen. Wrisberg eventually became a professor of both medicine and obstetrics (Wrisberg, 1800) (Fig. 2). His students were many and included Justus Ferdinand Christian Loder (1753–1832) a German anatomist and surgeon also from the University of Göttingen. Loder was one of the first to establish an anatomical theater and later went on to publish Tabulae anatomicae (1794–1803), which is considered to be one of the most comprehensive anatomical atlases of its time (Ruestow and Edward, 2004). Interestingly, Loder became physician to the Prussian royal family at Königsberg and later moved to Russia to become personal physician to Czar Alexander I (1777–1825) in 1810. Wrisberg also taught Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762–1836), a renowned physician and researcher and Samuel Soemmering (1755–1830) (University of Mainz) who following Wrisberg's encouragement, reclassified the cranial nerves into 12 pairs (Alfieri et al., 2010). Interestingly, Hufeland became Physician Royal to the King of Prussia, as well as to other notables such as Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832), Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805), and Christoph Martin Wieland (1732–1813) (Kemper, 1905).

Figure 2.

Illustration of a dissected infant from Wrisberg's Commentationum Medici, Physiologici, Anatomici et Obstetricii Argument published in 1800. [Color figure can be viewed in the online issue, which is available at wileyonlinelibrary.com.]

While the majority of Wrisberg's research was anatomical, his scope extended to the zoological sciences as well. Wrisberg was a pioneer in the study of protozoans. He described the process by which infusoria were produced, a theory that eventually established the classification of these organisms among other groups of animals. The term infusoria was first used to describe microorganisms found in decaying material (Wrisberg, 1765). Currently, this term is used for a class of the phylum Ciliophora.

Wrisberg contributed much to the field of anatomy through his research and publications and was regarded as an “excellent” anatomist (Kemper, 1905). In 1764, he described the cuneiform cartilages of the larynx, often referred to as the cartilages of Wrisberg (Layton, 1934). In the same year, he also gave concise descriptions of a ganglion of the superficial cardiac plexus (Wrisberg's ganglion), as well as the lateral meniscus of the knee and the posterior meniscofemoral ligament (ligament of Wrisberg) (Gupte et al., 2002). He was the first to clearly illustrate the fibers connecting the motor and the sensory roots of the trigeminal nerve (Wrisberg's lingula). He contributed again to the anatomy of the nervous system with his work in 1777 (Figs. 3 and 4), which included original descriptions of the nervus intermedius, as well as a branch of the brachial plexus supplying the skin of the medial side of the arm (medial brachial cutaneous nerve).

Figure 3.

Cover page from Wrisberg's publication on the nerves of the cranium where the nervus intermedius is described.

Figure 4.

Drawing of the nerves of the cranium from Wrisberg's publication Observationum Anatomicarum de Nervis Viscerum Abdominalium published in 1780. [Color figure can be viewed in the online issue, which is available at wileyonlinelibrary.com.]

Wrisberg is probably most remembered for his descriptions of the nervus intermedius, a small branch of the facial nerve transmitting general visceral efferent (lacrimation), special visceral afferent (taste), and general somatic afferent (concha of the ear) fibers. It is these latter fibers that are responsible for the vesicles seen in the concha with herpetic infection of the geniculate ganglion (Ramsay Hunt syndrome). First identified in 1563, it was Heinrich August Wrisberg who later termed this nerve the “portio media inter comunicantem faciei et nervum auditorium” in 1777 (Alfieri et al., 2010). Sensory fibers innervate parts of the inner, middle and external ear, the mastoid cells, and the eustachian tube. Also known as the nerve of Sapolinis (Alfieri et al., 2010) and probably first described by Eustachius in 1563, damage to this nerve following, for example, microsurgical approaches to the cerebellopontine angle may result in taste and tearing dysfunction (Alfieri et al., 2010). Incidentally, and as mentioned above, the nerve of Wrisberg can also refer to the medial cutaneous nerve of the arm referred to by Wrisberg as the “lesser internal cutaneous nerve.” The medial cutaneous nerve of the arm arises from the medial cord of the brachial plexus and joins the intercostobrachial nerve to supply the skin of the medial side of the arm and travels with the basilic vein. The anastomosis between the medial cutaneous nerve of the arm and the intercostobrachial nerve is known as the anastomosis of Wrisberg (Gould and Scott, 1919).

Some did not hold Wrisberg in high regard and thought that he allowed the Anatomical Institute to decline from what its former director Albrecht von Haller had established (Thode, 1979). Complaints regarding neglected duties in teaching of anatomy and obstetrics and his handling of cadavers were documented in letters from 1774 to the end of the 19th century (Thode, 1979). In 1804, Conrad Johann Martin Langenbeck (1776–1851) became Professor of Surgery in Göttingen. He was not happy about thestatus of the Anatomical Institute and along with Adolph Friedrich Hempel (1767–1834), the prosector in the Anatomical Institute, described the bad situation in several letters sent to the government in Hannover (Thode, 1979).

Wrisberg played a variety of roles as an anatomist, physician, teacher, and researcher in Göttingen. He contributed to many different fields of science and worked extensively until his death on 29 March 1808 in Göttingen (Ripley and Dana, 1873). Wrisberg's name lives on via several anatomical terms. It is the contributions of such early pioneers in anatomy such as Wrisberg on which we base our current understanding of the human form.