Friday, July 20, 2012


Just Fooling

Excerpt from Abraham Flexner, "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge," commencement address, Bryn Mawr College, June 2, 1937; first published in the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin (July, 1937):
Let us look in another direction. In the domain of medicine and public health the science of bacteriology has played for half a century the leading role. What is its story? Following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 the German government founded the University of Strasbourg. Its first professor of anatomy was Wilhelm von Waldeyer, subsequently professor of anatomy in Berlin. In his "Reminiscences" he relates that among the students who went with him to Strasbourg during his first semester there, there was a small, inconspicuous, self-contained youngster of seventeen by name Paul Ehrlich. The usual course consisted of dissection and microscopic examination of tissues. Ehrlich paid little or no attention to dissection, but, as Waldeyer remarks in his "Reminiscences":
"I noticed quite early that Ehrlich would work long hours at his desk, completely absorbed in microscopic observation. Moreover, his desk gradually became covered with colored spots of every description. As I saw him sitting at work one day, I went up to him and asked what he was doing with all his rainbow array of colors on his table. Thereupon this young student in his first semester supposedly pursuing the regular course in anatomy looked up at me and blandly remarked, 'Ich probiere.' This might be freely translated, 'I am trying' or 'I am just fooling.' I replied to him, 'Very well. Go on with your fooling.' Soon I saw that without any teaching or direction whatsoever on my part I possessed in Ehrlich a student of unusual ability."
Waldeyer wisely left him alone. Ehrlich made his way precariously through the medical curriculum and ultimately procured his degree mainly because it was obvious to his teachers that he had no intention of ever putting his medical degree to practical use. He went subsequently to Breslau, where he worked under Professor Cohnheim, the teacher of our own Dr. Welch, founder and maker of the Johns Hopkins Medical School. I do not suppose that the idea of use ever crossed Ehrlich's mind. He was interested. He was curious; he kept on "fooling." Of course, his "fooling" was guided by a deep instinct,—but it was a purely scientific, not a utilitarian motivation. What resulted? Koch and his associates established a new science,—the science of bacteriology. Ehrlich's experiments were now applied by a fellow student, Weigert, to staining bacteria and thereby assisting in their differentiation. Ehrlich himself developed the staining of the blood film with the dyes on which our modern knowledge of the morphology of the blood corpuscles, red and white, is based. Not a day passes but that in thousands of hospitals the world over Ehrlich's technique is employed in the examination of the blood. Thus the apparently aimless fooling in Waldeyer's dissecting room in Strasbourg has become—without anyone's suspecting the result—a main factor in the daily practice of medicine.
Hat tip: Duane Smith, at Abnormal Interests.

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