Monday, 7 December 2015

Du côté de chez Schwann

For my father, who had a practical education fitting for a future naval officer, literary intellectualism was summed up, and more or less dismissed, by "Proust and Kafka". It wasn't that he thought the works of those two European authors was rubbish, he just knew it wasn't to his taste; which leaned towards tum de tum de tum poetry, history and biography. Knowing who fought whom at Austerlitz, Blenheim or Camperdown and what the Defenestration of Prague or the Council of Trent was about would have made him rather handy in certain sections of a Pub Quiz if they'd been invented in time. I've mentioned Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu a few times on The Blob but only in its central anecdote about a fragment of madeleine transporting the great man back in time. I know nothing more about it except that, at 1,250,000 words, it is longer than The Blob and even longer than the complete Harry Potter.  I have read Kafka, on the other hand, which was weird but did get built into my expensive education [I can remember some of it]. Strangely, Proust's magnum opus and J.K. Rowling's are both in seven [7] volumes. Proust and Potter haven't been associated only in my mind: at least one other person has mentioned them in the same paragraph.  All this is a long journey round a scrap of madeleine to note that the first book of Proust's "most respected novel of the twentieth century" is called Du côté de chez Swann. And that is just an excuse to make a dreadful pun in the title.

The Schwann, whom I want to cosy up du côté de chez to, is emphatically not Proust's hero but a great scientist who did things in the great wide world rather than living entirely in his own head like me. Ken Robinson TED Talker and charismatic educator says that an intellectual's body is a grossly undervalued vehicle for getting the head to its various meetings TEDtalk [38m views 19mins] - Transcript. Get out and dance, professors! Theodor Schwann was born on this day 7th December 1810 - more than 200 years ago. People knew so little back then about how the world ticked that we might be tempted to wonder how they survived at all.  But that just silly scientism; because ordinary people can get born, eat food without poisoning themselves, fight off infection, have sex with each other and bring their own children into the world without owning a microscope or having the least idea that yeast, Salmonella and Neisseria gonorrhoeae are living things.

 Theodor Schwann was brought up in Neuß Neuss right across the river from Düsseldorf in Western Germany. He was born a French citizen because Napoleon had incorporated that part of Germany into his Empire but the territory was assigned to Prussia at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.  This turned out to be good for young Theodor's education, because he went to Universität zu Berlin (which became Humboldt University in 1949) to get his degree and there fell in with anatomist & physiologist Johannes Peter Müller just as the great man was putting the finishing touches to his magisterial Handbuch der Physiologie des Menschen.  Müller appointed Schwann as his assistant. I could have included Müller in my list of great names about the human body for the Müllerian ducts, microscopic embryonic features that grow and develop to become the uterus in female mammals.  I could have included Schwann as well for Schwann Cells which he discovered while working for Müller between 1834 and 1838. Schwann cells are filled with lipids and are coterminous with the myelin sheath à côté de / that wraps around neurons providing a certain amount of insulation and so upping the speed with which electrical signals are propagated. Schwann was the first person to tease apart nerve tissue and recognise how it was engineered.

Don't think that Schwann was a one trick pony.  While in Berlin, he also discerned that yeast was a) living and b) its metabolism was responsible for the production of a) alcohol [beer] and b) carbon dioxide [bread]. And while he was about it he invented the term 'metabolism'! He was really the first person to put this, then wildly controversial, idea (that fermentation is carried out by living microbes) into the public domain and he is thus the giant on whose shoulders Louis "Institut" Pasteur and Joseph "antiseptic" Lister stood. He then turned his attention to the process of digestion; isolating and describing the digestive enzyme pepsin.  It was the nature of the times that the plains of ignorance were wide open and ready for investigation by people who could put in the hours of focused attention necessary to run down some reliable facts about the world.

In 1838, at the age of 28, Schwann was head-hunted by the Catholic University of Leuven in the brand new Kingdom of Belgium. It was one of the region's great universities before it was split along language lines in 1968 into Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and Université catholique de Louvain. The following year he brought out his own mammoth tome Mikroskopische Untersuchungen über die Uebereinstimmung in der Struktur und dem Wachsthum der Thiere und Pflanzen which was his last huzzah.  Nine years later he transferred South to take up a Chair in the University of Liège. Without Müller breathing down his neck inspiring him to new discoveries, Schwann took his foot of the research pedal and mollocked about for the next 30 years giving rather good lectures and being amiably collegial about the campus.  As he got older he turned increasingly to religion and theology. And why not? he'd done more than his share for science.

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