Cohn, Ferdinand Julius
COHN, FERDINAND JULIUS (1828-1898), German botanist, was born on the 24th of January 1828 at Breslau. He was educated at Breslau and Berlin, and in 1859 became extraordinary, and in 1871 ordinary, professor of botany at Breslau University. He had a remarkable career, owing to his Jewish origin. He was contemporary with N. Pringsheim, and worked with H. R. Goeppert, C. G. Nees von Esenbeck, C. G. Ehrenberg and Johannes Müller. At an early date he exhibited astonishing ability with the microscope, which he did much to improve, and his researches on cell-walls and the growth and contents of plant-cells soon attracted attention, especially as he made remarkable advances in the establishment of an improved cell-theory, discovered the cilia in, and analysed the movements of, zoospores, and pointed out that the protoplasm of the plant-cell and the sarcode of the zoologists were one and the same physical vehicle of life. Although these early researches were especially on the Algae, in which group he instituted marked reforms of the rigid system due to F. T. Kützing, Cohn had already displayed that activity in various departments which made him so famous as an all-round naturalist, his attention at various times being turned to such varied subjects as Aldorovanda, torsion in trees, the nature of waterspouts, the effects of lightning, physiology of seeds, the proteid crystals in the potato, which he discovered, the formation of travertin, the rotatoria, luminous worms, etc.
It is, however, in the introduction of the strict biological and philosophical analysis of the life-histories of the lower and most minute forms of life that Cohn's greatest achievements consist, for he applied to these organisms the principle that we can only know the phases of growth of microscopic plants by watching every stage of development under the microscope, just as we learn how different are the youthful and adult appearances of an oak or a fern by direct observation. The success with which he attempted and carried out the application of cultural and developmental methods on the Algae, Fungi and Bacteria can only be fully appreciated by those familiar with the minute size and elusive evolutions of these organisms, and with the limited appliances at Cohn's command. Nevertheless his account of the life-histories of Protococcus (1850), Stephanosphaera (1852), Volvox (1856 and 1875), Hydrodictyon (1861), and Sphaeroplea (1855-1857) among the Algae have never been put aside. The first is a model of what a study in development should be; the last shares with G. Thuret's studies on Fucus and Pringsheim's on Vaucheria the merit of establishing the existence of a sexual process in Algae. Among the Fungi Cohn contributed important researches on Pilobolus (1851), Empusa (1855), Tarichium (1869), as well as valuable work on the nature of parasitism of Algae and Fungi.
It is as the founder of bacteriology that Cohn's most striking claims to recognition will be established. He seems to have been always attracted particularly by curious problems of fermentation and coloration due to the most minute forms of life, as evinced by his papers on Monas prodigiosa (1850) and "Uber blutähnliche Färbungen" (1850), on infusoria (1851 and 1852), on organisms in drinking-water (1853), "Die Wunder des Blutes" (1854), and had already published several works on insect epidemics (1869-1870) and on plant diseases, when his first specially bacteriological memoir (Crenothrix) appeared in the journal, Beiträge zur Biologie, which he then started (1870-1871), and which has since become so renowned. Investigations on other branches of bacteriology soon followed, among which "Organismen der Pockenlymphe" (1872) and "Untersuchungen über Bacterien" (1872-1875) are most important, and laid the foundations of the new department of science which has now its own laboratories, literature and workers specially devoted to its extension in all directions. When it is remembered that Cohn brought out and helped R. Koch in publishing his celebrated paper on Anthrax (1876), the first clearly worked out case of a bacterial disease, the significance of his influence on bacteriology becomes apparent.
Among his most striking discoveries during his studies of the forms and movements of the Bacteria may be mentioned the nature of Zoogloea, the formation and germination of true spores - which he observed for the first time, and which he himself discovered in Bacillus subtilis - and their resistance to high temperatures, and the bearing of this on the fallacious experiments supposed to support abiogenesis; as well as works on the bacteria of air and water, the significance of the bright sulphur granules in sulphur bacteria, and of the iron oxide deposited in the walls of Crenothrix. His discoveries in these and in other departments all stand forth as mementoes of his acute observation and reasoning powers, and the thoughtful (in every sense of the word) consideration of the work of others, and suggestive ideas attached to his principal papers, bear the same characteristics. If we overcome the always difficult task of bridging in imagination the interval between our present platform of knowledge and that on which bacteriologists stood in, say, 1870, we shall not undervalue the important contributions of Cohn to the overthrow of the then formidable bugbear known as the doctrine of "spontaneous generation," a dogma of despair calculated to impede progress as much in its day as that of "vitalism" did in other periods. Cohn had also clear perceptions of the important bearings of Mycology and Bacteriology in infective diseases, as shown by his studies in insect-killing fungi, microscopic analysis of water, etc. He was a foreign member of the Royal Society and of the Linnean Society, and received the gold medal of the latter in 1895. He died at Breslau on the 25th of June 1898.
Lists of his papers will be found in the Catalogue of Scientific Papers of the Royal Society, and in Ber. d. d. bot. Gesellsch., 1899, vol. xvii. p. (196). The latter also contains (p. (172)) a full memoir by F. Rosen.
(H. M. W.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)