Vol.  3, No. 2 — Summer 1991

Purkyne, Pestalozzi and the Teaching of Physiology

Some 30 years ago as a first year medical student in India, I became aware of Jan Evangelista Purkyne as I struggled to comprehend the conducting system of the heart, having slept soundly through the lecture on that subject. As I continued my own erratic way through the physiology course, sleeping through the day and swotting at night, I realised that Purkyne (or as we all called him then, Purkinjee to rhyme with Gandhijee) had left his mark on several other areas of physiology including the visual system, cerebellar and vestibular function. It is only recently that I came to realise Purkyne had a deep concern for pedagogy as well as for physiology. My initial introduction to this aspect of Purkyne's career started with an essay by William Coleman entitled Prussian Pedagogy: Purkyne at Breslau 1823-1839 (1), followed by a visit to Praha where I had occasion to attend a Symposium held at the Purkyne Institute with which he had been associated and where a number of teaching models initially developed by him have been carefully preserved. I met a number of Czech physiologists who talked glowingly of their countryman and impressed on me his major contributions to the teaching of physiology.

We who talk these days of active versus passive learning would find in Purkyne a kindred spirit who anticipated much of what came to be termed "learning by doing". To Purkyne, learning at all levels was a process of discovery which began in the earliest years and continued till the distinction between learning the known and defining the unknown vanished. The student who was felt to be a life-long learner, to use our jargon, merged into the genuine investigator.

Jan Evangelista Purkyne's pedagogic vision was shaped by his early experiences (1-4). He was born in Libochovice, now in Czechoslovakia, on the 17th of December, 1787. He lost his father at an early age and was helped by a local schoolteacher and parson who admitted him as a choirboy to a Piarist monastery in Southern Moravia. The Piarists, like the Jesuits, had acquired a high reputation for the quality of the education they offered in their schools, but unlike the latter order were allowed to preach in the Habsburg lands. The absence of any wealthy sponsor and a lack of marketable skills, combined with a genuine respect and admiration for the Piarists, led Purkyne to join the order in 1804. He did extremely well as a novice and as Brother Silverius left the Monastery to teach in the Piarist schools in Southern Moravia and Bohemia. He had used his time as a novice extremely well and acquired a working knowledge of several languages (French, Italian, German, Latin, Greek as well as his native Czech), and studied Philosophy, History and Mathematics as well as reading Poetry. In spite of his extensive teaching duties, he was an excellent student who received an "eminenter" (honours) in 29 of the 30 categories in his programme. He however failed to take his vows and left the order of his own volition in 1807. He commented later that it was neither the dislike of poverty nor the celibate life that pushed him to leave the order but a longing for a freer existence. "It was more a rebellion against continued obedience to my superiors, since their authority and dignity were not always evident to me." Further the study of Philosophy had awakened in him "a profound anticipation that in natural science," of which he had only a dim idea he "would perform something notable." He appeared to have been particularly influenced by the works of the philosopher, Fichte.

Having left the Order, Purkyne studied philosophical subjects (1807-1810), served as a tutor to the young son of Baron Hildprandt at Blatna near Prague (1810-1812) and then began to prepare for a medical degree at Charles University in Praha, planning a career in science rather than in the practice of medicine. His stint as tutor enabled him not only to develop his own skills as teacher but enabled him to reflect more deeply on pedagogic principles and conceive of the founding of a Czech school in natural sciences. He studied the pedagogic scripts of Pestalozzi and noted that he wanted to realize the methods of described and "hoped to bring them to fruition as a scientific education."

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (5) was born on the 12th of January 1746 in Zurich and died in Brugg on the 17th of February 1827. His long life spanned a turbulent period in Europe's history, the end of the ancien régime to the beginning of the machine age. He focused much of his attention on the education of children. To him it was more important to define HOW a child learnt rather than WHAT it learnt - Process took precedence over Content to use our jargon. Genuine education was truly self-learning as the child learnt by his own actions. The task of education was not to impose fixed doctrines but to help him or her to develop inner constructive powers. The teacher's role was "to organise instruction, assist at difficult moments and offer aid in generalisation."(1) These comments could effectively define the role of a tutor in a Problem-based School! A teacher's duty for Pestalozzi was to guide the child toward knowledge, particularly self-knowledge, so that the student in maturity would know his or her own capabilities.

Purkyne, however, realised that knowledge was equally important and thus the Content of learning could not be divorced from Process. He believed strongly that education should include not only the training of the mind but also of the senses and this could best be achieved by direct contact with natural phenomena. He was able to put his pedagogic principles into practice when he was appointed a Professor of Physiology at the Prussian University of Breslau in 1823. This was an unusual event in several ways. Purkyne, a Bohemian and a foreigner, had held no permanent appointment prior to this appointment. He had served only as a prosector and assistant in anatomy, his liberal non-conformist views preventing him from obtaining a definitive post in Praha. However, Purkyne had strong supporters in Berlin including Rust, the Director of Medical affairs in the Prussian Ministry of Cultural Affairs and Professor Rudolphi, the Founding Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at the University of Berlin and a personal friend of von Altenstein, the powerful Minister for religious, cultural and medical affairs. Rudolphi, who later became Purkyne's father-in-law, forced his appointment against the wishes of the Faculty of Medicine (1). As time passed, the Faculty came to appreciate Purkyne's strengths and their hostility dimmed considerably .

Purkyne started including practical demonstrations in the Physiology courses to complement lectures and by the 1830s began to include students in research projects. He thus moved beyond the lecture-demonstration and sought to involve students in making their own observations. Although not all students participated in these exercises, it certainly served to foster the research ethic in the German University system. He was able to enlarge the scope of his pedagogic experiments when he took charge of the Institute of Physiology which formed part of the University of Breslau, the first such Institute within the German University system. This was inaugurated on the 8th of November 1839. The investigator was thus trained by doing and the passivity of the lecture or even the lecture demonstration was transcended. This as Coleman points out in his essay was a "supremely Pestalozzian gesture, now brought to bear at the summit of the educational system, the University and its specialised institutes."

The concepts of active learning in the sciences espoused by the German physiologists were transported across the Atlantic and found enthusiastic support amongst American physiologists, many of whom spent time in the most exciting of the German laboratories where they "caught the disease" of active research (6). Bowditch, who returned to Harvard from a stint with Ludwig, established the first laboratory in an American medical school and introduced the European system of experimental physiology. Later, at Baltimore, the President of Johns Hopkins University, Daniel C. Gilman, promoted what was termed "learning by doing". As John Dewey commented in 1885, at Baltimore "The student is treated not as a bucket for the reception of lectures, nor a mill to grind out the due daily grist of prepared text-book for recitation, but as a being in search of truth, which he is to discover for himself, the proper encouragement and advice as to means and methods being furnished by the instructor." (7)

For those of us who attempt to propagate the virtues of "active learning", it is certainly refreshing to look back on its long pedigree and reflect that Purkyne was not the only eminent physiologist to concern himself with education at all levels. Jacob Henle, the eminent histophysiologist, transformed the microscope from a research instrument into a pedagogic tool and trained not just the elite but the average student in its use (8). Carl Ludwig was an inspiring teacher to many students including a number of Americans who travelled across the atlantic to the new centres of learning in Germany. Ludwig was no mean scientist, having invented the kymograph in 1847, an instrument that revolutionised physiology by producing the first permanent recordings of physiologic processes, thus giving physiology its new universal language, graphical methods (9). These men, like Purkyne, implemented "the Pestalozzian programme at a new and higher - indeed the highest - educational level... . The proper attention to self-development meant more than...effective schooling. Instead it directed the students' attention to what was unknown"(1). Research and Education were not then seen as distinct entities but as inextricably intertwined as they always have been and always should be.

 References (use the Back button to return to your place in the article)

(1) Coleman, W. (1988) Prussian Pedagogy: Purkyne at Breslau, 1823-1839 in The Investigative Enterprise: Experimental Physiology in Nineteenth-Century Medicine, edited W. Coleman and F.L. Holmes. U. Cal. Press, Berkeley 15-64

(2) Berg, J.R. and Sajner, J. (1975) J.E. Purkyne as a Piarist Monk. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 49: 381-388

(3) Kruta, V. (1975) Purkyne, J.E. in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited C.C. Gillispie, Chas. Scribner & Sons, N.Y., pp 213-217

(4) Kuthan, V. (1988) Achievements of J.E. Purkyne in the Physiology of Vision and Ophthalmology in Jan Evangelista Purkyne in Science and Culture, edited J. Purs. Praha, pp 564-610.

(5) Silber, K. (1973) Pestalozzi, The Man and his Work, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

(6) Harvey, A.M., Brieger, G.H., Abrams, S.L. and McKusick, V.A. (1989) A Model of its Kind vol.1. A centennial History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins, edited A.M. Harvey and others. Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore pp 157

(7) Frank Jr. R.G. (1987) American Physiologists in German Laboratories, 1865-1914 in Physiology in the American Context, edited G.L.Geison, pp 11-46

(8) Tuchman,A.M.(1988) From the Lecture to the Laboratory: The Institutionalisation of Scientific Medicine at the University of Heidelberg in The Investigative Enterprise: Experimental Physiology in Nineteenth Century Medicine, edited W. Coleman, F.L. Holmes. U. Cal Press, pp 65-100

(9) Harry, J.D. (1987) Early Designs of the Myograph. Medical Instrumentation 21: 278-282.

P.K. Rangachari
McMaster University