Life and Work of Simon Schwendener (1829-1919)

"Fighting for Science"

"... what I have in notion is an ... anatomical and physiological view at the tissues, ... which will revive the ... dead theory of anatomy by explaining the relation between construction and function", Schwendener once described the objective of his research.

Exploring Plants for over 50 Years

After his PhD he analysed the structure of the lichen thallus and soon was appointed Assistant Professor ("Privatdozent"). In 1876 he was asked to become an "Ordinarius" in Basel, Switzerland, and in 1877 in Tübingen, Germany. Another year later he went to Berlin, Germany, where he worked until the age of 80. Recalling his more than 50 years continuing career he summarised: "Fighting for science I have grown old, but I was successful".

Challenged Conclusions

Already his first scientific results caused a sensation: He showed that a lichen is a combination of a fungus and an algae. At that time this conclusion was revolutionary. It therefore was heavliy questioned by many lichenologists, and Nylander called it a "stultitia Schwendeneriana" (Schwendner the simpleton [1]). However, soon after that Barnetzki (1869), Reess (1871), Stahl (1877) and Bornet (1873) confirmed his results and interpretations.

Mechanistic Look at Living Plants

Schwendener realized that construction and function of the plants tissues are interrelated: The architecture of the plant body follows the principles of mechanics. This unusual mechanistic look at living objects was also heavily questioned by his contemporaries. However, Schwendener pursued his revolutionary ideas beeing mainly interested in physical and geometrical aspects, such as the construction of the pulvini, the sap ascent and first of all the position of leaves.

Stomata Movements in Textbooks

Beyond that he analyzed the structure of guard cells in terms of the function of stomata. Schwendener's interpretation of the mechanisms of stomata movements are still descibed in most textbooks of botany.


[1] Mägdefrau, K.: "Geschichte der Botanik. Leben und Leistung großer Forscher" (Stuttgart, Gustav Fischer Verlag, 2. Auflage, 1992).

Text und Copyright: Dr. Esther Schwarz-Weig