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Friedrich Leopold August Weismann


Educational Background/Training

Weismann was born on 17 January 1834 in Frankfurt am Main, in the German Confederation. His mother, Elise Eleanor Lübbren, was a musician and painter, and his father, Johann Konrad August Weismann, was a classics professor. Weismann studied music, particularly the works of Beethoven, and he studied nature, from which he collected butterflies. He noted diverse patterns and colors of butterflies, information that later informed his research on the development and evolution of butterflies and caterpillars.

In 1856 Weismann got his medical degree from the University of Göttingen in Göttingen, in the German Confederation. After graduation, Weismann worked as an assistant in a hospital for three years in Rostock, in the German Confederation, before becoming a physician in Frankfurt am Main in 1859. From 1861 to 1863, Weismann was the private physician for Archduke Stephen of Austria. In 1861, Weismann studied at the University of Giessen in Giessen in the German Confederation, with Rudolf Leuckart for two months, working on the ontogeny (development) and morphology (form) of animals, insects in particular. That year, Weismann read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species two years after it was published in 1859, after which he adopted evolutionary theory. Weismann studied different factors he thought might cause morphological transformations in insects, including natural selection.

In 1863, Weismann became a docent in zoology and comparative anatomy, a mid-ranking academic position, in the University of Freiburg in Freiburg in Breisgau, also in the German Confederation. In 1864, Weismann’s eyesight declined, which left him partially blind and limited his ability to use microscopes. Nonetheless, he studied the metamorphosis and development of butterflies. Weismann became the founding director of the Zoological Institute at the University of Freiburg in 1867. That year, he married Marie Dorothea Gruber from Genoa, Italy. The couple had at least five children. Along with his students and assistants, Marie aided his experimental and observational studies after his eyesight failed. Marie died in 1886, but Weismann remarried at the age of sixty in the mid-1890s to Willemina Tesse from the Netherlands, a marriage that lasted six years.

Summary of Research

            August Friedrich Leopold Weismann studied how the traits of organisms developed and evolved in a variety of organisms, mostly insects and aquatic animals, in Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Weismann proposed the theory of the continuity of germ-plasma, a theory of heredity. Weismann postulated that germ-plasma was the hereditary material in cells, and parents transmitted to their offspring only the germ-plasma present in germ-cells (sperm and egg cells) rather than somatic or body cells. Weismann also promoted Charles Darwin's 1859 theory of the evolution of species. Weismann argued that only changes to the germ cells, and not body cells, could be inherited, a theory that influenced theories of heredity throughout later centuries.

From 1881 onwards, Weismann published a series of essays about heredity. Those essays were collated in English in 1889's Essays upon Heredity and Kindred Biological Problems. The essays discussed topics including senescence, acquired characteristics, and the germ-plasma theory. For example, in the first chapter, "The Duration of Life," a translation of an essay originally published in German in 1881, Weismann detailed his evolutionary theory of senescence, the name given to the gradual deterioration of function of most life forms after they mature to adults. Weismann argued against theories that associated the length of an organism's life with the size or complexity of its body, or with how active it appears to be. Instead, he appealed to natural selection, arguing that it adapted organisms to reach reproductive maturity, and that it would not select for the capacity of the organism to live any longer once it was past reproductive age. He further argued that the death of male bees after they reproduced was selected for by nature to save nutrition for the colony, a phenomenon that precluded those organisms that had already reproduced from consuming resources.

Linking his work to broader context

When Weismann’s germ theory is paired with that of Gregor Mendel’s on inheritance we are provided the basic understandings of how humans and other animals inherit their traits from their parents. Weismann used his germ theory to explain that, “natural selection favors organisms that pass on their germlines before conspecific and before extrinsic factor cause their death (Crews and Ice, 2012: 639).” This statement has been used to create the concept of life history theory for many different species, including humans. For life history theory, we see that the goal to reproduce is in conflict with the maintenance of the body. This result in trade-offs that the body goes through in order to chose one of these actions over the other. The allocation of resources between reproducing and somatic maintenance created a way for researchers to compare and to structure their research as to why these chronic diseases and changes in old age occur. Through these trade offs in life history theory is how Weismann can be connected to this chapter. This chapter discusses the aging and senescence of humans. Senescence occurs when the body begins to function less efficiently and cell begins to functioning deteriorate as life progresses. The chapter discusses the different ways that the body ages in multiple areas, including hormones, immune system, cardiovascular, body composition, bone, dementias, and reproductive aging. All of these areas are altered through the aging of an individual based on the life history course that has been taken. One problem with Weismann’s concept of life history is that it does not allow for the environment and culture to alter these stages. Even in the chapter there is little discussion on the environment and its effects on life history. Yet, with the time that Weismann came up with this theory there must be credit given for his ability to come up with these conclusions that further lead to our understanding of how the body works.

Crews, D.E., Ice, G.H. (2012). Aging, senescence, and human variation in Human Biology: An Evolutionary and Biocultural Perspectives, Second Edition. Edited by Stinson, Bogin, O’Rourke. John Wiley and Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, New Jersey.

(2008). August Weismann found at