A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter V
Anatomy and physiology in the nineteenth century
The cell theory elaborated
That Schwann should have gone to embryonic tissues for the establishment of his ideas was no doubt due very largely to the influence of the great Russian Karl Ernst von Baer, who about ten years earlier had published the first part of his celebrated work on embryology, and whose ideas were rapidly gaining ground, thanks largely to the advocacy of a few men, notably Johannes Muller, in Germany, and William B. Carpenter, in England, and to the fact that the improved microscope had made minute anatomy popular. Schwann's researches made it plain that the best field for the study of the animal cell is here, and a host of explorers entered the field. The result of their observations was, in the main, to confirm the claims of Schwann as to the universal prevalence of the cell. The long-current idea that animal tissues grow only as a sort of deposit from the blood-vessels was now discarded, and the fact of so-called plantlike growth of animal cells, for which Schwann contended, was universally accepted. Yet the full measure of the affinity between the two classes of cells was not for some time generally apprehended.

Indeed, since the substance that composes the cell walls of plants is manifestly very different from the limiting membrane of the animal cell, it was natural, so long as the, wall was considered the most essential part of the structure, that the divergence between the two classes of cells should seem very pronounced. And for a time this was the conception of the matter that was uniformly accepted. But as time went on many observers had their attention called to the peculiar characteristics of the contents of the cell, and were led to ask themselves whether these might not be more important than had been supposed. In particular, Dr. Hugo von Mohl, professor of botany in the University of Tubingen, in the course of his exhaustive studies of the vegetable cell, was impressed with the peculiar and characteristic appearance of the cell contents. He observed universally within the cell "an opaque, viscid fluid, having granules intermingled in it," which made up the main substance of the cell, and which particularly impressed him because under certain conditions it could be seen to be actively in motion, its parts separated into filamentous streams.

Von Mohl called attention to the fact that this motion of the cell contents had been observed as long ago as 1774 by Bonaventura Corti, and rediscovered in 1807 by Treviranus, and that these observers had described the phenomenon under the "most unsuitable name of 'rotation of the cell sap.' Von Mohl recognized that the streaming substance was something quite different from sap. He asserted that the nucleus of the cell lies within this substance and not attached to the cell wall as Schleiden had contended. He saw, too, that the chlorophyl granules, and all other of the cell contents, are incorporated with the "opaque, viscid fluid," and in 1846 he had become so impressed with the importance of this universal cell substance that be gave it the name of protoplasm. Yet in so doing he had no intention of subordinating the cell wall. The fact that Payen, in 1844, had demonstrated that the cell walls of all vegetables, high or low, are composed largely of one substance, cellulose, tended to strengthen the position of the cell wall as the really essential structure, of which the protoplasmic contents were only subsidiary products.

Meantime, however, the students of animal histology were more and more impressed with the seeming preponderance of cell contents over cell walls in the tissues they studied. They, too, found the cell to be filled with a viscid, slimy fluid capable of motion. To this Dujardin gave the name of sarcode. Presently it came to be known, through the labors of Kolliker, Nageli, Bischoff, and various others, that there are numerous lower forms of animal life which seem to be composed of this sarcode, without any cell wall whatever. The same thing seemed to be true of certain cells of higher organisms, as the blood corpuscles. Particularly in the case of cells that change their shape markedly, moving about in consequence of the streaming of their sarcode, did it seem certain that no cell wall is present, or that, if present, its role must be insignificant.

And so histologists came to question whether, after all, the cell contents rather than the enclosing wall must not be the really essential structure, and the weight of increasing observations finally left no escape from the conclusion that such is really the case. But attention being thus focalized on the cell contents, it was at once apparent that there is a far closer similarity between the ultimate particles of vegetables and those of animals than had been supposed. Cellulose and animal membrane being now regarded as more by-products, the way was clear for the recognition of the fact that vegetable protoplasm and animal sarcode are marvellously similar in appearance and general properties. The closer the observation the more striking seemed this similarity; and finally, about 1860, it was demonstrated by Heinrich de Bary and by Max Schultze that the two are to all intents and purposes identical. Even earlier Remak had reached a similar conclusion, and applied Von Mohl's word protoplasm to animal cell contents, and now this application soon became universal. Thenceforth this protoplasm was to assume the utmost importance in the physiological world, being recognized as the universal "physical basis of life," vegetable and animal alike. This amounted to the logical extension and culmination of Schwann's doctrine as to the similarity of development of the two animate kingdoms. Yet at the, same time it was in effect the banishment of the cell that Schwann had defined. The word cell was retained, it is true, but it no longer signified a minute cavity. It now implied, as Schultze defined it, "a small mass of protoplasm endowed with the attributes of life." This definition was destined presently to meet with yet another modification, as we shall see; but the conception of the protoplasmic mass as the essential ultimate structure, which might or might not surround itself with a protective covering, was a permanent addition to physiological knowledge. The earlier idea had, in effect, declared the shell the most important part of the egg; this developed view assigned to the yolk its true position.

In one other important regard the theory of Schleiden and Schwann now became modified. This referred to the origin of the cell. Schwann had regarded cell growth as a kind of crystallization, beginning with the deposit of a nucleus about a granule in the intercellular substance - the cytoblastema, as Schleiden called it. But Von Mohl, as early as 1835, had called attention to the formation of new vegetable cells through the division of a pre-existing cell. Ehrenberg, another high authority of the time, contended that no such division occurs, and the matter was still in dispute when Schleiden came forward with his discovery of so-called free cell-formation within the parent cell, and this for a long time diverted attention from the process of division which Von Mohl had described. All manner of schemes of cell-formation were put forward during the ensuing years by a multitude of observers, and gained currency notwithstanding Von Mohl's reiterated contention that there are really but two ways in which the formation of new cells takes place - namely, "first, through division of older cells; secondly, through the formation of secondary cells lying free in the cavity of a cell."

But gradually the researches of such accurate observers as Unger, Nageli, Kolliker, Reichart, and Remak tended to confirm the opinion of Von Mohl that cells spring only from cells, and finally Rudolf Virchow brought the matter to demonstration about 1860. His Omnis cellula e cellula became from that time one of the accepted data of physiology. This was supplemented a little later by Fleming's Omnis nucleus e nucleo, when still more refined methods of observation had shown that the part of the cell which always first undergoes change preparatory to new cell-formation is the all-essential nucleus. Thus the nucleus was restored to the important position which Schwann and Schleiden had given it, but with greatly altered significance. Instead of being a structure generated de novo from non-cellular substance, and disappearing as soon as its function of cell-formation was accomplished, the nucleus was now known as the central and permanent feature of every cell, indestructible while the cell lives, itself the division-product of a pre-existing nucleus, and the parent, by division of its substance, of other generations of nuclei. The word cell received a final definition as "a small mass of protoplasm supplied with a nucleus."

In this widened and culminating general view of the cell theory it became clear that every animate organism, animal or vegetable, is but a cluster of nucleated cells, all of which, in each individual case, are the direct descendants of a single primordial cell of the ovum. In the developed individuals of higher organisms the successive generations of cells become marvellously diversified in form and in specific functions; there is a wonderful division of labor, special functions being chiefly relegated to definite groups of cells; but from first to last there is no function developed that is not present, in a primitive way, in every cell, however isolated; nor does the developed cell, however specialized, ever forget altogether any one of its primordial functions or capacities. All physiology, then, properly interpreted, becomes merely a study of cellular activities; and the development of the cell theory takes its place as the great central generalization in physiology of the nineteenth century. Something of the later developments of this theory we shall see in another connection.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.