Physiology and Philhellenism in the Late Nineteenth Century: The Self-Fashioning of Emil du Bois-Reymond

Lea Beiermann*, Elisabeth Wesseling

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Argument Nineteenth-century Prussia was deeply entrenched in philhellenism, which affected the ideological framework of its public institutions. At Berlin's Friedrich Wilhelm University, philhellenism provided the rationale for a persistent elevation of the humanities over the burgeoning experimental life sciences. Despite this outspoken hierarchy, professor of physiology Emil du Bois-Reymond eventually managed to increase the prestige of his discipline considerably. We argue that du Bois-Reymond's use of philhellenic repertoires in his expositions on physiology for the educated German public contributed to the rise of physiology as a renowned scientific discipline. Du Bois-Reymond's rhetorical strategies helped to disassociate experimental physiology from clinical medicine, legitimize experimental practices, and associate the emerging discipline with the more esteemed humanities and theoretical sciences. His appropriation of philhellenic rhetoric thus spurred the late nineteenth-century change in disciplinary hierarchies and helped to pave the way for the current hegemonic position of the life sciences.

Original languageEnglish
Article number0269889720000101
Pages (from-to)19-35
Number of pages17
JournalScience in Context
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2020


  • physiology
  • Du Bois-Reymond
  • discipline formation
  • interdisciplinarity
  • university history
  • life sciences
  • rhetoric
  • scientific self-fashioning

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