Gerard van Swieten

The Father of Physiology

It's the birthday of the Dutch botanist Gerard van Swieten, born on this day in 1700.

As Swieten turned 40 years old, Empress Maria Theresa inherited the Habsburg Empire. She had much to do to get her kingdom in shape.

When it came to medicine, Austria was about 200 years behind its European neighbors.

The Empress acted quickly, recruiting the best medical experts she could find; Gerard van Swieten was one of the most influential people she brought on board. By May 1745, Swieten moved his family to Vienna and began to set the stage for world-class medical training in Austria.

Swieten totally reorganized medicine at the University of Vienna; adding a botanical garden and a chemical laboratory, each headed by a professor.

A student of the great Boerhaave, the father of physiology, and clinical teaching. Swieten published, in Latin, five volumes on his teachings; those volumes influenced medical practice throughout Europe. It also contained the first description of episodic cluster headache.

Swieten exchanged letters with Linnaeus on botanical matters for over a decade.

He named his youngest daughter, Maria Theresia, after the Empress, who was also her godmother. His son Godfried would become famous in his own right as an Austrian ambassador and patron of great classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

One fascinating story about Swieten was his role in fighting superstition during the enlightenment, specifically with regard to vampires.

In 1755 the Empress sent Swieten to Serbia to investigate. Swieten viewed the vampire myth as a "barbarism of ignorance," and he aimed to completely crush it.

In 1768 "that all the fuss .... [comes from] vain fear, a superstitious credulity, a dark and eventful imagination, simplicity and ignorance among the people."

Based on Swieten's report, Maria Theresa issued a decree that banned all traditional defenses to vampires being put to the stakes, beheaded, and burned.

The genus of mahogany, Swietenia, was named after Swieten.

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Gerard van Swieten
Gerard van Swieten
Alexander Von Humboldt by Weitsch
Alexander Von Humboldt by Weitsch

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