[Index of Biographies]

Samuel Thomas von Soemmerring (1755-1830)

[This is a draft of an article in The Dictionary of Eighteenth Century German Philosophers, 3 vols., edited by Manfred Kuehn and Heiner Klemme (London/New York: Continuum, 2010).]

Samuel Thomas Soemmerring (also: Sömmering), born 28 January 1755 in Thorn (now: Torun, Poland), was the ninth of eleven children of Johann Thomas Soemmerring (1701-81; the city physician and a former student of Boerhaave and Albinus) and Regina Geret (1721-82; the daughter of a prominent pastor).  He died on 2 March 1830 in Frankfurt/Main.  Soemmerring was the leading German anatomist of his day, serving as professor of anatomy and surgery at Kassel (1779-84), as professor of anatomy and physiology at Mainz (1784-97), and finally as a privy councilor and resident member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in Munich (1805-20).  His acquaintances and correspondents included a wide circle of prominent intellectuals.

Soemmerring attended the gymnasium in Thorn (1769-74) before enrolling in medicine at the university of Göttingen (14 October 1774), where he studied under the anatomist Heinrich August Wrisberg (1739-1808), Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) [bio], August Gottlieb Richter (1742-1812), Friedrich Gmelin (1748-1804), Johann Andreas Murray (1740-91), Johann Christian Polykarp Erxleben (1744-77) [bio], Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-99) [bio], August Ludwig Schlözer (1735-1809) [bio], Johann Georg Heinrich Feder (1740-1821) [bio], and Ernst Gottfried Baldinger (1738-1804).  He lodged in Baldinger’s house, and he had become close friends with Blumenbach while the latter was still a student.  Soemmerring received his doctorate in medicine on 7 April 1778 with a dissertation on the anatomy of the base of the brain and the origin of the cranial nerves (and including his own illustrations), and then undertook a year-long academic tour (May 1778 to April 1779), visiting Amsterdam, Haarlem, Leiden, and Franeker, where he met the anatomist Peter Camper (1722-89), and then traveled to the British Isles to spend about two months in London, where he met John Hunter (1728-93) and George Forster (1754-94) [bio], and another five months with Alexander Monro (1733-1817) in Edinburgh, where he was made a member of the Society of Surgeons and Physicians (December 1778).

The acquaintance with George Forster was to grow into an exceptionally close friendship and was also of importance to his early career.  Forster, who was only two months older than Soemmerring, had just published his Voyage around the World (London, 1777) and would soon receive a professorship in natural science at Kassel (16 December 1778).  When Soemmerring returned home from his travels, penniless and without clear prospects, Forster helped him obtain a professorship of anatomy and surgery at Kassel (May 1779), thus beginning five productive years of research and publication.  While in Kassel, Soemmerring remained in close contact with Blumenbach and Lichtenberg at Göttingen, as well as with George Forster’s future father-in-law, Christian Gottlob Heyne (1729-1812) [bio], who invited Soemmerring to review anatomy books for the Göttingischen Gelehrten Anzeigen, a task he continued for the next fifty years.  He also made the acquaintances of the duke Karl August (1757-1828), Johann Heinrich Merck (1741-91), the Swiss historian Johannes Müller (1752-1809), Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819), Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) [bio], and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (in October 1783, when Goethe visited Kassel to observe Soemmerring’s anatomical work, beginning a life-long correspondence).  Forster had introduced Soemmerring to freemasonry while in London, and now in Kassel they both joined the Rosicrucians for a brief period, during which Soemmerring quickly (if only briefly) became a leading figure.

Soemmerring left for the university at Mainz in October 1784 where he was appointed professor of anatomy and physiology beginning that winter semester.  During this time he translated and annotated Haller’s Primae lineae physiologiae (1747; transl. 1788 as Grundriß der Physiologie für Vorlesungen); he researched the anatomy of the sense organs, publishing illustrated studies on the organs of sight (1801), hearing (1806), taste (1806), and smell (1809); and he widened his reading public with an essay on the dangers of wearing corsets (1788).  He also met Alexander Humboldt (1769-1859) in 1790, beginning a life-long acquaintance, and he became friends with the novelist and art critic Wilhelm Heinse (1746-1803), who was currently serving as private librarian to the Elector of Mainz.  Soemmerring and Johannes Müller, who had also moved to Mainz in 1786, managed to secure the university librarianship for their mutual friend Forster (who had left Kassel a few months before Soemmerring to accept a post at the university at Vilnius).  Forster, now married and with a child, arrived in 1788 and moved next door to Soemmerring.

Soemmerring married Margaretha Elisabetha Grunelius (1768-1802), the daughter of a prominent Frankfurt family, on 6 March 1792, and by December the political uncertainties in the wake of the new Republic of Mainz, as well as the ensuing estrangement from Forster, who held high office in the new government, precipitated the Soemmerrings’ move to Frankfurt where he would remain for the next thirteen years, sporadically commuting to Mainz to give lectures and officially relinquishing his academic post there in 1797.

While in Frankfurt he served as the city physician, introduced Jenner’s new smallpox vaccine, and developed a private practice that included the lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843).  He also published two widely-read essays, one on the guillotine (1795) and one on the soul (1796).  The first was occasioned by the introduction of the guillotine in France as a putatively humane form of execution.  Using results from his galvanic studies, Soemmerring argued that death by decapitation was neither quick nor humane, and that the severed head was still quite capable of experiences.  The second essay is his work best known to historians of philosophy: On the Organ of the Soul (1796) was dedicated to Immanuel Kant, who wrote a brief afterword (Kant’s Gesammelte Schriften, Ak. 12:30-5 [writings]; Kant’s multiple drafts for this are found at Ak. 13:398-412, some of their correspondence from 1795-96 and August 1800 has also been preserved).  This essay is discussed further below.

After his wife died from a sudden illness (11 January 1802) Soemmerring decided to leave Frankfurt, and considered teaching and research offers from Halle, Würzburg, Jena, Heidelberg, and St. Petersburg.  In March 1805 he finally accepted an appointment as privy councilor and member of the Bavarian Academy of Science in Munich, where he was soon joined by his old friend F. H. Jacobi, who served as president of the Academy from 1807-1812.  While there he also met Friedrich W. J. von Schelling (1775-1854), who was first at Wurzburg and then in 1806 also joined the Bavarian Academy.  Because the completion of a promised anatomy theater at the Academy was delayed (indeed, it was never completed during his stay), Soemmerring developed several new research programs to occupy his time, including the construction of an early version of the electric telegraph (1809), and the investigation of fossil dinosaurs (including the Pterodactylus antiquus Soemmerring); he eventually published seven treatises on the latter subject, which initiated a lengthy correspondence with France’s leading biologist, Georges Cuvier (1769-1832).  The phrenologist F. J. Gall (1758-1828), at the end of his three year lecture tour through central Europe, visited Soemmerring for over two months in 1807.  Soemmerring diligently collected various materials on Gall’s work and wrote a critical review of it, although he waited until Gall’s death before publishing (1829), despite frequent calls for his estimation of phrenology.  Soemmerring was raised to the nobility on 11 May 1808 (thus the ‘von’), and was made a member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences on 19 August 1818.

Soemmerring returned to Frankfurt in October 1820 for health and personal reasons.  He continued his practice of medicine and, in his last years, studied sunspots with the aid of a telescope given to him by the Munich physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787-1826).  The 50th anniversary of his doctoral promotion on 7 April 1828 was widely celebrated, with friends and admirers raising money to endow a prize in his honor.

Of particular philosophical interest are Soemmerring’s early essay on race, and the application of his careful work on neuroanatomy to questions of the mind and subjectivity.  Soemmerring’s acquaintance with Goethe came about as a result of the latter’s interest in comparative anatomy, and principally with his investigation into whether humans showed any trace of an intermaxillary bone (os intermaxillare), a bone all other mammals appeared to possess.  The famous menagerie at Kassel provided Soemmerring with many opportunities (including one Asian elephant) for comparative studies.  Goethe eventually claimed to have found a remnant of an intermaxillary bone in humans (a discovery that later won Charles Darwin’s praise), but Soemmerring viewed this bone as ‘a true feature of animality’ and in a 1784 essay argued, after dissecting several male corpses from the city’s African colony on Wilhelmshöhe, that Africans and Europeans belonged to the same species, in part because they lacked such a bone.  Regarding the presence of the intermaxillary, however, Goethe was right and Soemmerring wrong.

Soemmerring’s brief essay on the organ of the soul (1796) won immediate attention, although much of it was negative, and it counts as one of the last serious contributions made to this topic on the part of physical scientists.  The first half of the essay features the sort of careful anatomical study of the brain typical of Soemmerring, while the second half is rather more metaphysical and less careful.  His thesis was that the organ of the soul or sensorium commune — what allows each of us to unite our many sensations into a single experience — resides in the ventricular fluid of the brain where it has direct contact with all the sensory nerves (whose endings, he claimed, lined the walls of this cavity), thus making possible the unification of the many sensory impulses into a single experiencing self.  Each part of the essay had its critics, with anatomists challenging the claims that the sensory nerves all ended in the ventricles and that these ventricles were filled with fluid (a claim contrary to Haller’s published observations).  Soemmerring had invited Kant to write a response to this work, which Soemmerring then included as an afterward when it was published, writing that it was “an amplification and refinement” of his own ideas.  Yet Kant’s response in his Afterword was rather mixed.  He referred to Soemmerring as the ‘first philosophical anatomist of the visible in man’ (Kant being ‘an anatomist of the invisible’), but he found deeply problematic Soemmerring’s attempt to locate the soul in space.  Soemmerring slips between identifying the organ of the soul (which involves some item of our outer sense, and thus is a proper object of study by natural science) and the location of the soul itself (which can be an object only of inner sense, and thus is inappropriately addressed by anatomists, and which furthermore is found to be self-contradictory, since one is trying to locate in space something non-spatial).  Kant quickly noted this problem and ignored the metaphysical issue altogether, devoting his remarks instead to the physiological question of how this ventricular fluid might be organized — for clearly whatever is to unify our sensations into a single experience must involve some sort of ordering principle, and yet a fluid substance, by its very nature, cannot support a spatial, much less mechanical, organization.  Kant’s interesting suggestion was that this organization might instead occur dynamically (as a sequential ordering of chemical solutions), an idea that Soemmerring found quite congenial (Letter to Kant, 22 August 1795).


Anatomica de basi encephali et originibus nervorum cranio egredientium (Göttingen, 1778).

Ueber die körperliche Verschiedenheit des Mohren vom Europäer (Mainz, 1784; 2nd edn, Frankfurt/Main and Mainz, 1785 [‘Negers’ replaces ‘Mohren’ in the title]).

Vom Bau des menschlichen Körpers, 5 vols. (Frankfurt/Main, 1791-6; Latin trans., Leipzig, 1794-1801).

‘Sur le supplice de la guillotine’, in Magasin encyclopédique (1795), vol. 3, pp. 463-77.  Translated into German as ‘Über den Tod durch die Guillotine’, in Klio (1795), vol. 9, pp. 61-72.

Über das Organ der Seele (Königsberg, 1796).  Photomechanical repr. with ancillary materials in Werke, vol. 9 (Basel, 1999).

Abbildungen des menschlichen Auges (Frankfurt/Main, 1801; Latin trans., 1804).  Photomechanical repr. with ancillary materials in Werke, vol. 6 (Mainz, 1994).

Abbildingen des menschlichen Hörorganes (Frankfurt/Main, 1806; Latin trans., 1806).  Photomechanical repr. with ancillary materials in Werke, vol. 7 (Stuttgart, 1998).

Abbildungen der menschlichen Organe des Geschmackes und der Stimme (Frankfurt/Main, 1806; Latin trans., 1808).  Photomechanical repr. with ancillary materials in Werke, vol. 7 (Stuttgart, 1998).

Abbildungen der menschlichen Organe des Geruches (Frankfurt/Main, 1809; Latin trans., 1810).  Photomechanical repr. with ancillary materials in Werke, vol. 7 (Stuttgart, 1998).

‘Meine Ansicht einiger Gallschen Lehrsätze’ in Göttingische gelehrte Anzeigen (Göttingen, 1829), no. 6 and 7, pp. 49-64.

Briefwechsel, 1792-1805, vol. 20 of Werke (Basel, 2001).

Samuel Thomas Soemmerring: Werke, ed. by Gunter Mann, Jost Benedum and Werner F. Kümmel, 20 vols. (Stuttgart and Basel, 1990-).

Other Relevant Works

De cognitionis subtilioris systematis lymphatici in medicina usu (Kassel, 1779).

‘Etwas vernünftiges vom Oran-Outang’, in Göttingen Taschencalendar (Göttingen, 1781), pp. 40-64.

Vom Hirn und Rückenmark (Mainz, 1788).

Über die Schädlichkeit der Schnürbrüste (Leipzig, 1788; fully rev. edn, Berlin, 1793, with the title ‘Über die Wirkungen der Schnürbrüste’).

Icones embryonum humanorum (Frankfurt/Main, 1799).

Über die Structur, die Verrichtung und den Gebrauch der Lungen (Berlin, 1808).

Über die schnell und langsam tödtlichen Krankheiten der Harnblase und Harnröhre bei Männern in hohen Alter (Frankfurt/Main, 1809).

‘Über einen elektrischen Telegraphen’, in Denkschriften der Königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu München für die Jahre 1809 und 1810 (Munich, 1811), pp. 401-14.

Further Reading

ADB, vol. 34, pp. 610-15 (Jännicke).

DBE, vol. 9, p. 359 (Manfred Wenzel).

DSB, vol. 12, pp. 509-11 (Erich Hintzsche).

Euler, Werner, 'Die Suche nach dem ‘Seelenorgan’: Kants philosophische Analyse einer anatomischen Entdeckung Soemmerrings’, in Kant-Studien, vol. 93 (2002), pp. 453-80.

Goldbeck, Johann Friedrich, Litterarische Nachrichten von Preußen (Berlin, Leipzig, Dessau, 1781-3), vol. 2., pp. 180-83.

Hamberger (Lemgo, 1798), vol. 7, pp. 531-4; (1803), vol. 10, p. 679; (1805), vol. 11, p. 704; (1811), vol. 15, pp. 492-3; (1825), vol. 20, pp. 506-8.

Kant, Immanuel, ‘Appendix to Soemmerring’s Über das Organ der Seele’ in his Gasammelte Schriften (Berlin, 1900), vol. 12, pp. 30-35.

Mann, Gunter, Jost Benedum, and Werner F. Kümmel, (eds.), Soemmerring-Forschungen, 9 vols. (Stuttgart and Basel, 1985-1994).

McLaughlin, Peter, ‘Soemmerring und Kant: Über das Organ der Seele und den Streit der Fakultäten’ in Samuel Thomas Soemmerring und die Gelehrten der Goethezeit, ed. by Gunter Mann and Franz Dumont (Stuttgart, 1985), pp. 191-201. [Soemmerring-Forschungen, vol. 1]

Neuer Nekrolog der Deutschen, 1830 (Jimenau, 1832), pp. 206-12.

Riese, Walther, ‘The 150th Anniversary of S. T. Soemmerring’s Organ of the Soul’, in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 20 (1946), pp. 310-21.

Siemon, Rolf, ‘Samuel Thomas Soemmerring — Frankfurter Anatom, Physiologe, und Physiker’ in Natur und Museum, vol. 130 (2000), pp. 238-58.

Stricker, Wilhelm, Samuel Thomas Soemmerring nach seinem Leben und Wirken geschildert (Frankfurt/Main, 1862).

Wagner, Rudolph, Samuel Thomas Soemmerrings Leben und Verkehr mit seinen Zeitgenossen, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1844). Photomechanical reproduction (Stuttgart, 1986) ed. by Franz Dumont.  [Soemmerring-Forschungen, vol. 2]

Wenzel, Manfred, ed., Goethe und Soemmerring: Briefwechsel 1784-1828 (Stuttgart, 1988).  [Soemmerring-Forschungen, vol. 5]

Wenzel-Naß, Gabriele, ‘Soemmerring-Bibliographie’ in Samuel Thomas Soemmerring und die Gelehrten der Goethezeit, ed. by Gunter Mann and Franz Dumont (Stuttgart, 1985), pp. 331-417. [Soemmerring-Forschungen, vol. 1]

[Index of Biographies]

Copyright ©2006 Steve Naragon (Manchester University)
Last modified: 11 Jul 2010
Please send comments and questions to: ssnaragon@manchester.edu