Target Health Blog

Paul Langerhans

July 1, 2019

History of Medicine

Paul Langerhans in 1878
Photo credit: by Unknown - Public Domain,

Paul Langerhans (25 July 1847 - 20 July 1888) was a German pathologist, physiologist and biologist

Eponymous terms

Langerhans cells - Skin cells concerned with the immune response and which sometimes contain Langerhans granules. In 1868, Langerhans used the technique taught to him by Julius Friedrich Cohnheim to stain a sample of human skin with gold chloride and identified the cells which bear his name. From their appearance, Langerhans believed they were nerve cells. However, they are a form of dendritic cells.

Layer of Langerhans - In the same paper in which he described Langerhans cells (dendritic cells), he described the granular cells in the exterior portion of the Malpighian layer of the epidermis, the stratum granulosum otherwise known as the Layer of Langerhans.

Langerin - CD207, langerin (Cluster of Differentiation 207) is a protein which in humans is encoded by the CD207 gene. It is expressed in the Birbeck granules of Langerhans cells.

Islets of Langerhans - Pancreatic cells which produce insulin. Langerhans discovered these cells during his studies for his doctorate at the Berlin Pathological Institute in 1869.

Langerhans was born in Berlin on 25 July 1847, the son of a physician. He later entered the renowned Graues Kloster in the same city. Due to his outstanding performance he was exempted from the final oral examinations. He began his medical studies at the University of Jena and completed them in Berlin. In February 1869, he presented a thesis entitled “Contributions to the microscopic anatomy of the pancreas,“ in which he refers to islands of clear cells throughout the gland, staining differently than the surrounding tissue. He noticed that these areas were more richly innervated, but he could not suggest a function, except for the incorrect hypothesis that they might be lymph nodes. One year before, still as an undergraduate, he analyzed epidermal skin cells as part of an open competition organized by Berlin University.

The branched skin cells resembling neurons, described in his paper entitled “On the nerves of the human skin,“ remained an enigma for over a century before their immunological function and significance were recognized. Using the gold chloride techniques of Julius Cohnheim, he described the dendritic, non-pigmentary cells in the epidermis that he regarded as intraepidermal receptors for extracutaneous signals of the nervous system. These cells were an enigma to dermatologists for over a century before the recognition of their immunological function and importance. The precision of his observation and description of the cells seems incredible when his drawings of 1868, made with the use of a primitive light microscope, are compared with the reproduction obtained today with immunofluorescence. After more than a century without appreciable progress into the nature, importance, and function of these cells. In 1973 Dr Inga Silberberg discovered that the epidermal Langerhans cells represent the most peripheral outpost of the immune system. Today, Langerhans cells are the best studied immature dendritic cell subset.

After graduation, Paul Langerhans accompanied the geographer Richard Kiepert to Syria, Palestine and western Jordan, but returned to Europe at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Later he served in an ambulance unit in France. In 1871. Rudolf Virchow arranged a position for him as prosector in pathological anatomy at the University of Freiburg, and within two years he became a full professor. Langerhans also made the first careful and detailed description of the microscopic structure of the pancreas. He described nine different types of cells including small, irregularly shaped, polygonal cells without granules, which formed numerous “zellhaufen“- literally cell heaps - measuring 0.1 to 0.24 mm in diameter, throughout the gland. Langerhans refrained from making a hypothesis as to the nature and importance of these cells. In 1893, the French histologist GE Languesse named these spots “ilots de Langerhans“; the insulin secreting function of these cells was established later. Another important contribution, made with FA Hoffmann in Virchow's laboratory, dealt with the macrophage system. He and Hoffmann studied the intravital storage of cinnabar injected intravenously into rabbits and guinea pigs. They were able to show that cinnabar was taken up by white blood corpuscles but never red. They also demonstrated deposits of cinnabar in fixed cells of the bone marrow, capillaries, and connective tissue of the liver. This was one of the pioneering investigations that later led to Aschoff's concept of the reticuloendothelial system.  Langerhans was also involved in zoological studies resulting in the publication of papers on the heart of amphibious animals, eye of lamprey, and numerous others. The investigation of the lamprey is a complete book of 115 pages with 11 plates. While teaching and deeply involved in his research at the University of Freiburg, Paul Langerhans contracted tuberculosis in 1874, very likely because of his work in the dissecting room. In search of a cure, he travelled to Naples, Palermo, the island of Capri, and underwent treatments at Davos and Silvaplana in Switzerland, but all in vain: he was forced to apply for release from his university duties. In October 1875 he embarked for Funchal on the island of Madeira, where he made a partial recovery and launched himself into a new career with undiminished energy. He began studying marine worms, making regular trips down to the harbor to pick over the fishermen's' nets. His publications describing and classifying marine invertebrates deserve to rank as his third contribution to science. In 1887, he gave a lecture on these topics to the Royal Academy in Berlin.

In 1885, he married Margarethe Ebart, the widow of one of his patients. They travelled to Berlin for the wedding, and he met his father, sisters and two brothers for the last time. The newly-weds rented Quinta Lambert, known as the most beautiful villa in Funchal and now the Official Residence of the President of the Regional Government. In the words of his new bride “three indescribably happy years“ followed. He practiced as a physician in Funchal, treating mostly fellow tuberculosis-suffers, and published scientific papers about the condition in Virchow's archive. Not content with this, he also wrote a handbook for travelers to the island, and pursued studies in meteorology. In autumn of 1887, progressive renal failure brought his medical activities to an end. He developed leg edema, crippling headaches and transient memory loss. Sometimes he stopped in the middle of a sentence and was unable to continue. He died of uremia on 20 July 1888, five days before his 41st birthday. He is buried in the British Cemetery of Funchal on Madeira, a place he had chosen, describing it as a "true graveyard, isolated and quiet, a good place to rest."

Sources:; Wikipedia; ScienceDaily

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