International Giants of Otology: 19th Century Beginnings

Robert Traynor
November 3, 2015

Building upon the knowledge gained by earlier scholars such as Du Verney, Malpighi, Morgagni, Valsalva, Scarpa, Cortugno and others, the tools available to study structure and function in the nineteenth century facilitated a time of great discovery in Otology. igo9

Progression of the Microscope

Many of the anatomical and physiological structures  of the ear are microscopic and the continued progression of microscope  technology played an important role in the discovery various structures important for hearing and balance.  The first part of the 19th century found new microscopes offering achromatic lenses that limit the effects of chromatic and spherical aberration, allowing for better observation of tiny structures without visual distortion.  According to Pappas (1996), it was not until the end of the eighteenth century that magnification was used that the minute anatomical details could be observed.


igo11Early Surgeries

There were isolated surgeries on the ear at this time, such as the first myringotomy performed in 1801 by  Astley Cooper (1768-1841) but the first portion of the 19th century was given to much discussion of those structures already identified. In 1829, Jean Cruveilhier (1791-1874), described the pathology of a pearl-like tumor in the central nervous system, which contemporary otologists feel was probably a cholesteatoma of the petrous apex.   In 1838, the physician to the French prison in Rennes, Dr. Toulemouche, described malignant external otitis for the first time.

Making Sense of the Research on the Ear

By 1838, however, these descriptions of treatments, surgeries, anatomical structures and physiological theories had quite different nomenclature from one laboratory to another as well as in various country’s journals and publications.  Due to the explosion of information the were becoming progressively confusing, even to scholarly anatomists.igo10  Gilbert Breschet (1784-1845) from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris became frustrated with the various names given to structures.  In his famous paper of 1838,  Recherches anatomiques et physiologiques sur l’organe de l’ouïe (Anatomical and physiological research on the organ of hearing and hearing in humans and vertebrate animals), Breschet demanded accuracy in the definitions of various structures and their function, even changing some names and terms used for their description.  Breschet’s paper was an effort to insure that all researchers were discussing the same things.  As  his career progressed, Breschet made important investigations of the auditory system in vertebrates, providing the first comprehensive description of the utricle and saccule and introducing the terms “otoconia” and “helicotrema“.  The helicotrema is the passageway connecting the scala tympani and scala vestibuli atigo13 the top of the cochlea and is sometimes referred to as “Breschet’s hiatus”.

Development of the Specialty of Otology

Pappas (1996) indicates the clinical specialty of otology started in France (1850s), emerged as a scientific specialty in England, and received explosive progress from German-speaking countries at the end of the nineteenth century.  As in most new disciplines, the groups that begin the study of a special area is quite small and students of one scholar often become the students of colleagues which can be seen throughout the 19th century study of the ear. A few famous anatomists and physiologists in the centers for otology in Europe shape the study and the discoveries for the next few decades and even into the early 20th century.


Armed with the progressive microscopes of the time, 1850 found Alphonso Cortiigo14 (1822-1876),  studying the cochleae of over 200 humans and animals in Alberto Kolliker’s (1817-1905) laboratory at the University of Warzburg.  About twenty years later, Kolliker suggests that the structure he studied be named the Organ of Corti is named in his honor.

Early Physiologists and Their Students

About this time, Johannes Muller (1801-1858) also igo13began to study the ear at the University of Berlin.  Müller made contributions in numerous domains of physiology but he and his famous students had a real impact on the theories of how the ear works. The appearance of his publication, Handbuch der Physiologie des Menschen, between 1833 and 1840 (translated into English as “Elements of Physiology”) was also published in London 1837-1843, beginning of a new period in the study of in  physiology. In this publication, Mueller combines the research efforts of human and comparative anatomy with chemistry and other departments of physical  science into the investigation of physiological problems.

As a result, Mueller attracts some igo12later famous students, such as Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821-1894) who, based upon the direction offered by Du Verney’s writings, becomes the father of Resonation and number of other Physical Laws, such as the Law of the Conservation of Energy and Helmholtz Free Energy. His students, were none other than Heinrich Rudolph Hertz (1832-1894) and Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920)  contributed greatly to the understanding of sound andigo15 auditory physiology.  Wundt is considered the father of Experimental Psychology by establishing the first experimental psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig.   His students went on to become the leaders of 20th century experimental psychology expanding his concepts across Europe and to the United States and lead to the discoveries that led the 20th century discussions at prestigious institutions around the world.

Next week Hearing International discusses more 19th century International Giants of Otology as it is impossible to even begin to present some of these important scholars of otology and hearing science in a short space.  The 19th century, particularly the last half, was such a prolific discovery period in auditory anatomy and physiology there were many giants as well as their students that further refined the physical laws that shaped the thought of the 20th century in the structure and function of the ear as well as the treatment of ear disease.



Cherry, K. (2015).  Wilhelm Wundt(1832-1920) biography. About Education.  Retrieved November 5, 2015.

Junior, J.; Hermann, D., Americao, R., Filho, I., Stamm, A. Pifnatari, S., (2007).  A brief history of Otorhinolaryngology: Otology, Rhinology and laryngology.  Revisita Brasileira de Otorrinolaringologia.  Vol 73(5).  Retrieved October 19, 2015.

Pappas, D. (1996). Otology through the ages. Otolaryngology Head Neck Surgery.  114(2). pp. 173-176.  Retrieved November 4, 2015.

Traynor, RM. (2011).  International and computer connections in pychoacoustics – Part I.  Hearing Health and Technology Matters.  Retrieved November 3, 2015.

Traynor, RM. (2013).  A tale of two maneuvers.  Hearing Health and Technology Matters.  Retrieved November 3, 2015.


Mellish, B. (2015). Chromatic aberration lens diagram.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia:  Retrieved November 2, 2015.

Mellish, B. (2015).  “Lens6b-en” Achromatic doublet lens diagram.  Original uploaded on en.wikipediaSVG version of Image:lens6b.png. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons:  Retrieved November 2, 2015.

Encyclopedia Britannica (2015).  Structure and function of the organ of Corti.  Retrieved November 5, 2015.

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