Jan Evangelista Purkyne - a groundbreaking scientist who played a major role in the Czech national revival

Jan Evangelista Purkyne

The nineteenth-century Czech physician and natural scientist Jan Evangelista Purkyne is perhaps best known to people today for identifying the unique nature of individual fingerprints, a discovery which has played a vital role in countless criminal investigations. Nevertheless, this is just one of many discoveries by Purkyne, who was responsible for a number of epoch-making contributions to different scientific disciplines. He was also a key figure in the Czech national revival.

Jan Evangelista Purkyne was born in 1787 into a peasant family in the town of Libochovice about 40 km from Prague. His humble origins might have limited his educational opportunities if it had not been for a prodigious musical talent, which saw him recruited as a choirboy for a Piarist monastery in Moravia. The monks there also gave him a classicist education and he subsequently joined the order as a teacher in 1804.

Professor Jaroslav Blahos, president of the JE Purkyne Czech Medical Association says that the education he received in the monastery played a vital role in laying the groundwork for his future academic career:

"He first entered the Piarist monastery because it was a very poor family. His father died [when he was young] and so they were really very poor. He found this monastery very suitable for his studies because the library was very richly equipped with many books. But after three years he began to think that it was not the best place for him and that he would begin to devote himself to scientific work and humanist sciences and so on."

In fact, exposure to modern German philosophers such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte left Purkyne dissatisfied with what he described as the "continuous slavery" of his ecclesiastical career.

In 1807, he left the order and walked 300 km to Prague, where he started studying philosophy at Prague University while eking out a living as a tutor. He later began studying medicine in 1810. He graduated in 1819 with a thesis based on his studies of human vision. This early work was much admired by the German author Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who may have been instrumental in getting Purkyne a position at the university in the Polish town of Wroclaw in 1822.

Purkyne was to remain in Wroclaw for 27 years. While there he soon established a reputation for his revolutionary teaching methods, which involved using demonstrations, experiments and laboratory work in his lessons. Professor Blahos says this approach was at odds with the plodding dogmatic nature of universities at that time:

"As a professor of physiology, he was teaching at the university. He was not simply a passive teacher at the time, but was very active. He knew how to communicate with his pupils, so people were very keen to listen. He had actually studied speech as well, not only from the physiological point of view in terms of how speech is produced but from the psychological perspective with regard to the emotional significance of speech. As a result he knew very well how to affect his pupils. Another thing he did which was very modern at the time was that he conducted many experiments and demonstrations in his lessons. So in some ways I think you could say he was one of the founders of modern pedagogical methods."

Purkyne's scientific output in Wroclaw was also prodigious. In 1842, he established the world's first ever physiological laboratory. Professor Blahos says Purkyne's tireless studies of the human body and his pioneering work with microscopes led to many groundbreaking discoveries.

"In cardiology, for example, he described the fibres in the cardiac muscle. These fibres are actually called 'Purkyne fibres' and they transmit nerve impulses. He also studied the brain, and discovered what are known as 'Purkyne cells' in the cerebellum. There are many other parts of the body's microscopic structures, which bear his name. Consequently his name is very well known all over the world."

Besides being the first person to realise that fingerprints can be used for identification purposes, JE Purkyne was also one of the first people to develop a theory of cells as the basic structure of the human organism. He made scores of other discoveries as well, such as being the first to identify human sweat glands and the reaction of the pupil of the eye to changes in light intensity.

Jaroslav Blahos says that his studies of human vision also meant that his work had a major impact on other fields:

"There are also many, many other things which he studied at the time. For example, he predicted cinematography. Because of his studies of eye movement he came up with a device that could mimic the movement of things like people walking. In this sense, he was actually one of the founders of cinematography."

Purkyne was also a pioneer in the field of comparative physiology, which involved a lot of laboratory work involving live animals. Jaroslav Blahos says that Purkyne's humane approach to this activity was well ahead of its time.

"He did a lot of experiments with animals. This was also very interesting because in some of his papers he underlined the ethical point of view in terms of dealing with animals. He emphasised the need for an ethical approach to animals. This was really an exception at that time."

Despite living abroad in Wroclaw for so many years, Purkyne never lost touch with his homeland. He was an ardent supporter of the Czech language and played a role in modernising it by helping create Czech terminology to ensure the language kept abreast of the latest scientific discoveries and developments.

When he eventually returned to Prague in 1849 to take the chair of physiology at Prague University, he continued to support the development of the Czech language at a time when intellectual life was dominated by German. He published many of his papers in Czech and also championed the acceptance of Czech as a teaching language at the university. Jaroslav Blahos says that these activities helped ensure that he became a key figure in the Czech national revival.

"He was really a Czech nationalist. He was also well known among lay people, because he tried to popularise his scientific discoveries and those of other scientists. He tried very hard, and also insisted classes at the university should be given in Czech, for example."

In 1853, Purkyne began publishing the important Czech science journal Ziva (meaning "alive"). This publication was a major achievement at a time when publishing activity was severely hampered by reduced press freedom in Austro-Hungary under the reactionary Minister of the Interior Alexander von Bach.

Dr. Magdalena Pokorna works for the Czech Academy of Sciences, a national research institute whose very existence owes much to the fact that JE Purkyne championed the idea more than 150 years ago. She says that Ziva magazine was a vitally important publication for the development of the Czech intelligentsia during the national revival.

"We have to realise that this was a time in the 1850s when publishing activities were significantly restricted by the era known as Bach absolutism. Because this Czech natural science magazine was brought out by an authority like Jan Purkyne it was not a sub-standard publication by any means. In fact, Ziva magazine not only published work by important researchers, it also published contributions from popular literary figures such as Bozena Nemcova, who had a very warm relationship with Jan Evangelista Purkyne and who also naturally relied on him for support."

Jan Evangelista Purkyne died in 1868, leaving behind a huge scientific legacy and a burgeoning Czech national consciousness, which he had played a major role in fostering.