Paul Langerhans was born July 25th, 1847 in Berlin. He was born into a family of well-known physicians and, having finished the gymnasium at the age of 16, decided to study medicine in Jena. While working on skin innervation in the pathology laboratory of Rudolf Virchow, he discovered the dendritic cells named after him (Langerhans' skin cells). He considered these to be nerve cells; nowadays we know that they are in fact part of the immune system and serve as antigen-presenting cells. At around the same time, in 1869, he worked on his PhD thesis, the topic of which was the 'abdominal salivary gland' now known as the pancreas. During these studies he identified the 'small homogeneous cells lying in pairs of little groups together' that would really make him famous: the islets of Langerhans.
Paul LangerhansThe nineteenth century witnessed a revolution in science and medicine, which was driven forward by many remarkable people; Paul Ehrlich, Robert Koch, Louis Pasteur and Rudolf Virchow among them. Paul Langerhans, whose name is forever linked to the pancreatic islets, well deserves to be remembered in this company. He also gave his name to the intra-epidermal dendritic cells of the skin, and these Langerhans’ cells have in recent years attracted so much attention that they deserve to be recognised as his second major discovery. He further deserves recognition for his zoological descriptions of hundreds of hitherto unknown marine worms, several of which still bear his name.
Paul Langerhans was born in Berlin on July 25, 1847, the son of a physician, and later entered the “School of the Grey Monastery”, the most famous German high school of that time. He was an excellent student, and finished so far ahead of his 25 classmates that he was exempted from the final oral examinations. His medical studies began at the University of Jena and were completed in Berlin when in February 1869 he presented a thesis entitled “Contributions to the microscopic anatomy of the pancreas”. As one commentator remarked, “his conclusions were that he had found nothing new, and he hoped that his examiners would look tolerantly on his efforts. But in it he refers to islands of clear cells throughout the gland, whose staining properties were quite different from the surrounding tissue. He noticed that these areas were more richly innervated than the surrounding tissue, but could suggest no function for the areas, except that they might be lymph nodes” . One year before, still as an undergraduate, he took part in an open competition organised by Berlin University, and described the epidermal cells of the skin. The dendritic cells, described in a paper entitled “On the nerves of the human skin”, remained an enigma for over a century before their immunological function and significance was recognised.
After graduation, he accompanied the geographer Richard Kiepert to Syria, Palestine and western Jordan, but returned to Europe at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war and later served in an ambulance unit in France. In 1871 Rudolf Virchow arranged a position for him as prosector in pathological anatomy at the University of Freiburg, and within two years he became a full professor. It was here that he contracted tuberculosis in 1874, very likely because of his work in the dissecting room. He travelled in search of a cure to Naples, Cairo, Palermo, the island of Capri, and underwent treatments at Davos and Silvaplana in Switzerland, but all in vain: he was forced to apply for release from his University duties.
In October 1875 he embarked for Funchal on the island of Madeira. Once there, he made a partial recovery and launched himself into a new career with undiminished energy. It was here that he began his study of marine worms, making regular trips down to the harbour to pick over the fishermens’ nets. His publications on marine invertebrates deserve to rank as his third contribution to science. He practised as a physician in Funchal, treating mostly fellow-suffers with tuberculosis, and published scientific papers about the condition in Virchow’s Archiv. Not content with this, he also wrote a handbook for travellers to the island, and pursued studies in meteorology.
In 1885 he married Margarethe Ebart, the widow of one of his patients. They travelled to Berlin for the wedding, and he met his father, sisters and two brothers for the last time. The newly-weds rented Quinta Lambert, known as the most beautiful villa in Funchal and now the governor’s residence. There followed, in the words of his new bride, “three indescribably happy years”. It was not to last, for progressive renal failure brought his medical activities to an end in the autumn of 1887. He developed leg oedema, crippling headaches and transient memory loss, sometimes stopping in the middle of a sentence and unable to continue. He died of uraemia on July 20, 1888, 5 days before his 41st birthday, and is buried in the British cemetery. He had chosen to be buried there, describing it as a “true graveyard, isolated and quiet, a good place to rest”. Little did he dream that his name would be known to all future students of medicine.
Medvei VC (1993) History of clinical endocrinology: A comprehensive account of endocrinology from earliest times to the present day. Taylor and Francis, London