Life and work of Eduard Strasburger (1844-1912)

Eduard Strasburger

"Science is a constant flow"

The plant scientist wrote one of the best known textbooks on plant sciences already many decades ago. The book is still being published today. But the findings of Eduard Strasburger once were fiercely dabated and some of them proven more than 60 years after their first publication.

Bible for Botanists

His "Textbook of Botany for Universities" ("Lehrbuch der Botanik") is known as "the botanist's bible" as Hildegard Finke enthuses about this textbook in a booklet on the occasion of the centenary of the book[1].

Translated into eight languages

The first edition comprising 558 pages, written by Strasburger and three university lecturers as coauthors, was published in 1894. In the following years it was translated to eight languages. The 35th edition from 2002 consists of about twice as many pages.

Professor at 25 to Poppelsdorf Palace at 47

After Habilitation Strasburger was appointed Professor at the University of Jena, Germany, at an age of 25. Before he had studied in Paris, France, Bonn and Jena, both Germany. In 1866 he completed the 130 pages of his handwritten PhD thesis "Asplenium bulbiferum. A contribution about the development of the fern leave with special attention to the stomata and the chlorophyll". Finally he accepted an appointment by the University of Bonn, Germany, in 1881 where he worked until his death in 1912 in the marvellous Botanical Institute located at Poppelsdorf Palace.

Revolution in Cytology

Strasburger war an excellent teacher and had as many students as Wilhelm Pfeffer. However, even after the publication of his often quoted textbook his main interest was in research. He was the first plant scientist who used tissue fixation and staining protocols in microscopy routinely. Therefore he is considered the founder of modern cytology[2].

Dispute during conference

Because of the unknown staining techniques his results were disqualified as artifacts when he presented them at a botanical conference in Amsterdam, Netherlands in 1877. Anton de Bary [Link] had to take Strasburger's part because of the violent criticism. Using the new methods Strasburger was able to demonstrate that a nucleus of a dauther cell only can derive from the nucleus of the mother cell. He judged this result as that important that he asked his publisher to repurchase the second edition of his book "Generation and Segmentation of Cells" ("Zellbildung und Zelltheilung") from the marked and to print a corrected third edition.

60 Years Later his Postulate Was Accepted

Strasburger mainly worked on fertilization in ferns, conifers and in liverworts. His idea that a female cone is not a flower but an inflorescence was accepted 60 years later through a fossil record found. In 1884 he observed the fusion of nuclei following fertilization which he published in the book "Theory of Generation" ("Theorie der Zeugung").

Water transport in dead cells

However, he was not only interested in cytology but also in physiological processes. In his 1000 pages comprising book "About the Construction and the Performance of Vascular Bundles in Plants" ("Ueber den Bau und die Verrichtung der Leitungsbahnen in den Pflanzen") he demonstrated that water transport is possilbe without the involvement of living cells.

Mistakes will disappear in the constant flow

Taken all together Strasburger had published more than 120 books, reports and reviews comprising more than 6000 pages. He attempted to publish as soon as possible. He achieved this by scribbling his results and thoughts on a dayly basis. Often he maintained this chronological descriptions in his publications. Therefore, books of Strasburger often list countless details and therefore many of them are hard to follow up. This impulsive performance caused some mistakes which, however, didn't bother Strasburger much. His opinion was, "everything in the sciences is in a constant flow".

Five honorary doctorates

The significance of Strasburger's research can be seen in the many terms established by him, like phototaxis, gamete, cyto- and nulceoplasm, pro-, meta- and anaphase, plasmodesms, haploid and diploid. Five universities awarded him an honorary doctor and over 40 national and international academies, societies, and clubs asked him for membership. Moreover Strasburger was one of the founders of the German Botanical Society (Deutsche Botanische Gesellschaft, DBG).

"Modest and ordinary"

Despite his achievements he stayed "modest, ordinary, and not overbearing", as his student and friend G. Karsten wrote.

Text and Copyright: Dr. Esther Schwarz-Weig
[1] Finke, H. M., "Eduard Strasburger - eine biographische Skizze". In "100 Jahre Strasburgers Lehrbuch der Botanik für Hochschulen 1894-1994". Stuttgart, Gustav Fischer Verlag, 1994.

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