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Youth, studies

Haller was the fifth and youngest child of Niklaus Emanuel Haller, a jurist, and Anna Maria Engel. He studied medicine in Tübingen and especially in Leiden with Herman Boerhaave, the leading medical authority of his time. After graduation in 1727, he visited England briefly and completed his anatomical and surgical studies in Paris and learnt the foundations of higher mathematics from Johannes Bernoulli in Basel. From 1729 to 1736 he worked as a physician in Bern and published some first minor works in anatomy and botany. He achieved his first fame, however, with his Essay of Swiss Poems (Versuch Schweizerischer Gedichte, 1732), which served as the model for descriptive and philosophical poetry for the next generation and made Haller the most highly esteemed German poet of the 1730s and 1740s.

Professor in Göttingen

In 1736, Haller was called as professor of anatomy, botany and surgery to the newly established University of Göttingen, where he stayed until 1753. In this period of intense scientific activity, he developed his main areas of research and laid the foundations of later works. In 1742, he published a massive flora of Switzerland and was soon acknowledged as one of the leading botanists and as the most important opponent of Linnean nomenclature. As an anatomist, he focused on the vascular system and set the new standard in this particular branch with his Icones anatomicae (8 parts, 1743–56).

Haller’s main interest, however, was physiology, the study of the functions of the living body. Convinced that fundamental insights into the function of the living body can only be gained by the examination of the living body itself, Haller started in the late 1740s with various series of animal experiments. He was the first to perform animal experiments on a large scale, guided by a well defined set of questions and carried out in a systematic manner. His results created a revolution in medical theory. They showed that the body was not – as hithertho thought – a passive machine guided by the soul but an active organism reacting to stimulations. This insight changed not only the conception of life in general but also of health and sickness. Whereas the physicians before 1750 attributed sickness mainly to a disturbance in the motion of fluids and fibers they now increasingly considered alterations of irritability and sensibility as the source of all diseases.

In recognition of his scientific contributions, Haller was ennobled by the emperor in 1749. More importantly, his standing was confirmed by membership of the main European academies, ie. those of Uppsala (1733), London (1739), Stockholm (1747), Berlin (1749), Bologna (1751) and Paris (1754). In 1751, he was elected perpetual president of the newly founded Royal Academy of Sciences of Göttingen (Göttingen was part of the Hanoverian empire). Besides his various scientific and literary activities, Haller was also busy as chief editor (1747–53) of the Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen, the leading German review journal, for which he penned some 9,000 reviews in the years 1747–77.

Civil servant in Bern

Despite his international fame as a scientist Haller was never really happy in Göttingen. The loss of two dearly loved wifes and of three young children, his quarrels with colleagues from the university and the separation from his home and his friends in Bern weighted down on him. Setting his hopes on a political career and aiming to secure the social and economic position of his family in Bernese patrician society, Haller returned to his home town in 1753. He had already in 1745 been elected as member of the Great Council (Grosser Rat) and was now appointed as Rathausammann, a relatively modest charge in itself but a good position to set up a political career. In 1758 Haller was elected director of the salt mines in Roche in the French part of the Bernese territories, a well paid and respected position which he accepted gladly as he could continue to perform his own research and implement some of the agricultural reforms he promoted. In 1764, he returned to Bern and continued to work as an important member of various Bernese municipal bodies such as the Economic Committee and the Medical Council. Due to his multiple role as an 'enlightened' civil servant, author of essential treatises (on fodder plants, cereals and rinderpest) and president of the Economic Society of Bern (1766, 1768, 1770–1777) he was one of the central figures of the economic-patriotic reform movement in Bern.

Late works

Haller’s return to Switzerland was not a farewell to the Republic of Letters. He continued to maintain his vast correspondence, of which 3,700 letters to and 13,300 from 1,200 persons have survived. And he did not relent in his scientific activity. He proceeded with his embryological investigations, already started in Göttingen, and published his major works on the development of the chicken embryo in 1758 and 1767. His opus magnum, the Elementa physiologiae, appeared in eight volumes over a period of ten years (1757–66). Haller presented his views on anatomy and physiology to the wider public in the Yverdon and the supplements to the Paris Encylopédie (1772–77), for which he wrote some 200 articles. A second, considerably revised and enlarged edition of his Swiss flora, was published in 1768. Remote from major centres of academia, he continued to build up his large library with more than 23,000 titles, mostly belonging to the medical, botanical and natural sciences. The last decade of his life Haller devoted to the edition of critically commented bibliographies of botany, anatomy, physiology, surgery and the practice of medicine. In 10 volumes, he presented and discussed some 50,000 works from all branches of medicine. Besides that, he wrote three novels on the principles of government and religious works against the French freethinkers, notably Voltaire. Haller obtained perhaps the greatest satisfaction of his life in July 1777, half a year before his death, when the emperor Joseph II – on his ‘incognito’ voyage through Europe – declined to visit the philosophe in Ferney but called upon our scholar in Bern.


Haller in the museum