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Oswald Schmiedeberg (1838-1921)

Oswald Schmiedeberg was born in 1838 in Kurland, a Baltic province of Russia (later Latvia). He studied medicine at Dorpat in nearby Estonia and was strongly influenced by the teaching of Rudolf Buchheim. In 1847 Buchheim had organized the first institute of Experimental pharmacology. Schmiedeberg received his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1866 after preparing a thesis on the determination of chloroform in the blood. He remained at Dorpat where he was appointed as a lecturer in pharmacology in 1868. When Buchheim left Dorpat in 1869 Schmiedeberg became his successor. In 1872 he received an appointment as professor of pharmacology at Strassburg where he stayed for 46 years. Although the value of the science of pharmacology was yet to be proven to the medical profession, Schmiedeberg began building a world-famous pharmacological institute.

Throughout his life Schmiedeberg published over 200 articles and books. He studied a series of carbamic acid esters and the relationship between chemical structure and narcotic effectiveness. At Strassburg initial pharmacological studies were performed on some of the most important drugs and poisons of that era including muscarine, nicotine, the digitalis glycosides, and various toxic heavy metals. Schmiedeberg's early observation that ingested camphor was excreted as a hydroxylated form along with a reducing substance led to the discovery of glucuronic acid. He then was able to show that glucuronic acid was a component of cartilage and occurred as a disaccharide of chondroitin sulfate. In his many years of studying the chemistry of mucopolysaccharides and mucoproteins he elaborated the components of hyaluronic acid and explored its relation to chondroitin sulfate, collagen and amyloid.

During his administration more than 150 pharmacologists were trained in Strassburg. At the time of Schmiedeberg's death more than forty chairs of pharmacology were held by his students.

In the introduction to his classic text Grundriss der Arzneimittellehre, first published in 1883, Schmiedeberg defined his perception of the role of the pharmacologist in medicine:

This outline presents only that part of drug teaching which can be judged by the pharmacologist, and is, therefore, not a compendium of therapy. The pharmacologist does not deal with therapy, the practicing clinician does. The complexity of treatment in modern medicine on one side and the scope of pharmacology on the other no longer allow anybody to represent both disciplines if he is not to become a dilettante in one of them. Without pharmacologic knowledge the physician will stumble around in the dark whenever he employs drugs. Transmission of such knowledge is one of the tasks of the pharmacologist. Yet, he cannot tell physicians how to treat illnesses. Rather, he must content himself with describing the actions of important pharmacologic agents on man, with characterizing the consequences for the entire organism of the use of such agents under various conditions, and with deriving general rules for the use of drugs from pharmacologic facts. Whether the actions exerted by a drug on the organism can be therapeutically useful depends not only on the nature of the illness but most importantly on the features of each particular case.

Ref: "Schmiedeberg in Strassburg 1872-1918: The Making of Modern Pharmacology, J.Koch-Weser and P.J.Schechter, Life Sciences, 22:1361-1372(1978). As quoted by Koch-Weser and Schechter, Ibid. p. 1369.

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