Hans Leo Przibram

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Hans Leo Przibram

Hans Leo Przibram [ ˈpʃɪbram ] (* July 7, 1874 in Lainz near Vienna ; † May 20, 1944 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp ) was an Austrian zoologist and the founder of experimental biology in Austria.

As a private person, Przibram founded the first station for experimental biology, the Biological Research Institute in the Vivarium in Vienna, where he constructed chambers with constant temperature for his experiments and developed the "autophore transplantation ". He was the mentor of the biologist Paul Kammerer and wrote a seven-volume experimental zoology.



Przibram's parents were the Prague- based manufacturer and member of the Bohemian Landtag Gustav Przibram (1844–1904) and his wife Charlotte nee. Baron Schey of Koromla .

Przibram's father showed a lively interest in the natural sciences and their technical applications, and so he was one of the first to illuminate his apartment in Vienna 1., Parkring 18 , using batteries of novel galvanic cells that he developed together with H. Scholz and W. Wenzel Vienna electric.

Przibram's brother, the physicist Karl Przibram (1878–1973), describes the milieu in an autobiographical sketch of his childhood and youth:

“The spirit that ruled my parents' house was that of the educated Jewish bourgeoisie of the liberal era, with their unconditional belief in progress and their openness to all achievements in art and science. My uncles included the lawyers Josef Unger and Josef Schey and the chemist Adolf Lieben . My father himself, incidentally a gifted poet and full of deep social feelings, was very interested in the technical applications of the natural sciences. He was involved in the invention of a galvanic battery, which he used to light our apartment in the early 1980s. "

Early on, interest in the animal world awoke in Przibram. The then still rural surroundings of his birthplace, which was incorporated by Vienna in 1892, with its undecimated world of insects gave food to his eagerness to collect (see Lainzer Tiergarten ).


After graduating from the Academic Gymnasium , he began studying zoology in Vienna (1894–1899). The dominant personality of his student days was Berthold Hatschek , professor of zoology at the University of Vienna . In 1899 he was awarded a Dr. phil. doctorate, habilitated in zoology in 1904 with a special focus on experimental morphology, and in 1913 became associate professor for experimental zoology. Stays in the zoological stations in Trieste , Naples and Roscoff ( Brittany ) made Przibram familiar with the marine fauna. In 1916 he was elected a member of the Leopoldina Science Academy .

Biological research institute

The vivarium in Vienna's Prater, destroyed in 1945 (1880)

The big turning point in his life came when the “ Vivarium ” in Vienna's Prater was offered for sale in 1902. The neo-renaissance building on the northern edge of the Prater- Hauptallee , near the Vienna Giant Ferris Wheel (roughly where the school traffic garden is today), was built as a show aquarium and was later called the “vivarium”, also populated by land animals. It finally formed part of the small zoological garden that existed in the Prater. This zoo ran into financial problems, probably as a result of competition from the Schönbrunn zoo , and so the building finally had to be sold. Przibram bought the vivarium together with his friend, the botanist Leopold von Portheim, a wealthy private scholar; the botanist Wilhelm Figdor (1866–1938) then joined the two .

The building was established in 1903 as a private research institute for experimental biology and was given the name " Biological Research Institute " (BVA). Initially, three departments were created: one zoological, one botanical and one plant-physiological, under the heads of Przibram, Portheim and Figdor.

At times there was also a physiological department under Eugen Steinach , known for his attempts to influence sex and "rejuvenation", and a physico-chemical department under Wolfgang Joseph Pauli (1869–1955), important colloid chemist and father of the physicist and Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli .

The organizational principle that determines scientific work, namely to work on a complex research area such as biology in the interaction of different sub-disciplines, was visionary. The synthesis of botanical, zoological, chemical and physical research was already taking place here when there was still no talk of interdisciplinary research in general.

In addition to the necessary work rooms, rooms for employees and laboratories, stables, open-air terrariums and glass houses, garden and courtyard plots, temperature chambers, six cemented pools and a large frog pool were built.

In 1903, Przibram had taken on a young man as his assistant who had recommended himself to him, especially because of his great skill in raising animals, Paul Kammerer , who later became the most famous biologist of his time. Przibram later reported:

“When setting up the biological research institute, we were looking for an employee who would set up the terrariums and aquariums and make the institute comfortable for the small animals. Drawn to him by a newspaper article by Kammerer about his animal care, I went to see him and found an enthusiastic and skilled employee. In him was a facility for musical activity and a large part of artistic nature as well as the ability to observe nature very closely and, in particular, a love for all living creatures that I have never seen in anyone else. Here was the fulcrum of his whole being. In particular, he set up the exemplary care for amphibians and reptiles, which is so important for biological experiments . I have hardly known anyone who would have met all the requirements as much as he did. "

In 1904, Przibram went on an expedition to Sudan with Leopold von Portheim and Paul Kammerer , which not only gave him the opportunity to observe tropical animals in their natural environment, but also brought in abundant research material for the BVA, such as the egg cocoons of the local form of the praying mantis , and provided him with a lot of material for later work.

Przibram's travels took him through most of Europe and North America , where he visited nature reserves and caves to study their peculiar fauna. The meeting with the great physiologist Jacques Loeb made a deep impression on him in the USA .

In order to put the biological research institute on a more secure basis than that of a private institute, the founders donated the institute and endowment capital of 300,000 kroner (around 2 million euros ) to the kk Academy of Sciences in Vienna on January 1, 1914 , which the founders called Head of the individual departments retained. The connection with the academy was maintained by a board of trustees appointed by it, the first chairman of which was the botanist Richard Wettstein .

Przibram's endeavors were directed towards the quantitative development of biology. The first prerequisite for this was to keep external factors constant, which can influence life processes, and above all the temperature . Przibram constructed different chambers with constant temperature at a time when there was no talk of " air conditioning ". In two rooms, one for higher and one for lower temperatures, four departments were created in which, with the help of automatically regulated heating and cooling systems, the temperature, with the exception of minor fluctuations, at various constant values, graduated from five to five degrees, for several years could be held. This made it possible to run tests at constant temperatures between + 5 ° and + 40 ° C. The regulation of the humidity was also planned. The new temperature chambers represented a pioneering achievement in control engineering.

During the First World War , part of the institution had to be converted into a hospital for the wounded, and Przibram was called up for infantry training.

In 1932 the old show aquariums were put back into operation, with Przibram introducing new characteristics: Each container represented a different habitat in terms of fauna and flora , such as pond , river , tropical sea, etc. The show was open to the general public, and guided tours were organized for schools. The vestibule also housed a unique collection of natural and artificial deformities that Przibram had compiled.


In April 1938, after the "Anschluss" to the German Reich, Przibram was dismissed from his position as a Jew by the National Socialist academy director Fritz Knoll for "racial" reasons and was no longer allowed to enter the institution he had founded and managed for decades; he also had to leave his large private library there. Arthur Koestler , Paul Kammerer's biographer , wrote in 1971:

“He was not at all aware of the danger that Hitler posed for Austria. His former colleague Paul Weiss , then at the University of Chicago , offered to get him a position in America. Przibram refused; he didn't want to believe that Austria could sink into barbarism. "

In 1939 Fritz Knoll also helped to extract more money from Przibram before he was allowed to leave the country. He and his brother had to sell two houses on the Ringstrasse and furniture at ridiculous prices.

In December 1939 Przibram managed to emigrate with his wife to Amsterdam , where, thanks to the courtesy of colleagues there, he was initially able to continue his work on the chemistry of the pineal gland . After the occupation of the Netherlands , the couple was born on 21./22. April 1943 deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in occupied Bohemia with Transport 24/1 .

Przibram's brother Karl, who had emigrated to Brussels in 1939 , where he was able to survive the German occupation underground, received a card from his brother from Amsterdam dated April 21, 1943: "We were asked to go to Theresienstadt ..." May 1944, Hans Leo Przibram died of exhaustion in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. His wife Elisabeth committed suicide by poisoning the next day. The London Times published an obituary on July 16, 1945.


Przibram's first marriage was Countess Anna Komorowska , who came from an old Polish family. From this marriage came the three daughters Marguerite, Vera and Doris. After the death of his first wife in 1933, Przibram married the widow Elisabeth Fröhlich, born in 1935. Glory man who brought a stepdaughter into the marriage. Elisabeth Fröhlich was of Jewish origin. Przibram lived in Vienna's 13th district , Hietzing , in the Ober-St.-Veit district , Hietzinger Hauptstrasse 122.

Scientific work

Przibram's work related to the most diverse areas of experimental zoology: regeneration and transplantation , quantitative growth studies, the influence of temperature on life processes, the chemistry of the animal color coat and its influence by external factors and the analogies between living beings and crystals . He left an extensive manuscript on the chemistry of the pineal gland .

For transplantation, Przibram introduced a new procedure that he called "autophoric transplantation". The grafts are inserted into various predetermined cavities in the body, where they are easily held in place without further affecting the wound surface. This procedure was also used in Kopany's eye transplants.

In what is perhaps his best-known experiment, Przibram discovered the “tail thermometer” of rats : If these rats are raised at different constant temperatures, it becomes apparent that their tail length increases with increasing temperature.

Przibram's main work was his “Experimental-Zoologie” in seven volumes, published from 1907 to 1930 by Deuticke in Vienna and Leipzig, in which he not only compiled his work and that of his students, but also gave an overview of the relevant literature. His series was the attempt to "summarize the laws of animal forms and functions determined by experiments."

In 1922, together with his assistant Leonore Brecher , he was able to confirm Paul Kammerer's thesis that modifications ( Lamarckism ) could be transferred in several experiments with butterfly pupae and rats . Paul Kammerer was Przibram's pupil and had sparked heated academic debates with the findings of his experiments on fire salamanders, which contradicted the dogma of science. Przibram and Brecher's findings regarding the midwife toad were later refuted by British and US scientists.

Przibram also had a talent for drawing. This not only benefited him with the illustrations of his work; In connection with his knowledge of animal and vegetable forms, stylized pen drawings were created, some of which were shown in the winter exhibitions of the Vienna Secession in the years 1899/1900 and 1900/1901 through the mediation of Adolf Loos and in the magazine " Ver Sacrum " and in English " Studio ”. Przibram wrote the book decorations, numerous Art Nouveau illustrations and vignettes for the muse almanac of the university students in Vienna from 1900. (The printing order was directed by Adolf Loos.)

Przibram, together with Emil Zuckerkandl , gave artists like Gustav Klimt in lectures that were conveyed by Berta Zuckerkandl , also insights into the scientific, sometimes microscopic world of images of their time, which Klimt for example in his picture "Danae" (1907) through the representation used by blastocysts .

Przibram's pupil

Over the years Przibram has trained a number of students, such as Paul A. Weiss and Karl von Frisch .

The Paul Kammerer affair attracted a lot of attention . Thanks to his skill in raising animals, he was able to raise various amphibians under changed conditions for generations. Przibram later wrote:

“However, this was not necessarily an advantage, because the main value of the experimental method lies in the fact that the same results can be achieved over and over again under the same test conditions and can be confirmed during re-testing. If the follow-up examiner does not succeed in keeping the animals alive for as long or for as many generations as the first observer, how should a follow-up check lead to a confirmation and thus certainty of the findings? "

Kammerer claimed to have received changes in his experiments that could only be explained by the inheritance of acquired properties . Since this violated a dogma of the prevailing theory of development, Kammerer's results were vehemently disputed, and when it turned out that a specimen copy sent to England for inspection revealed subsequent manipulation, the opponents believed they could portray Kammerer as a swindler. Kammerer, who then received a call to Russia, did not accept it, but committed suicide. Przibram always remained convinced of the authenticity of Kammerer's observations and repeatedly stated in private conversations that he believed he knew who had committed the forgery to compromise Kammerer's, but could not make it public due to a lack of sufficient evidence.

Another issue that attracted attention was the rat eye transplant by Przibram's student, Kopany. Blinded rats with the eyes of others inserted behaved after some time, as observations and specially made experiments have shown, just as if they could see. This was declared impossible, especially by the ophthalmologists, and a heated debate ensued about it. Kopany is said to have continued his attempts in America with success.


  • Attempt to chemically characterize some animal classes in the natural system based on their muscle plasma . Friedrich Vieweg & Son, Braunschweig 1902.
  • Introduction to the experimental morphology of animals. Deuticke, Vienna 1904.
  • The life story of the praying mantises (catching grasshoppers). (= Special print from the magazine for scientific insect biology , Volume III [1st volume Volume XII], 1907, Issue 4, pp. 117–122, and Issue 5–6, 1907, pp. 147–152); Self-published by the editor, Berlin 1907.
  • Experimental Zoology . 7 volumes. Deuticke, Vienna and Leipzig 1907–1930
  • The biological research institute in Vienna. Purpose, establishment and activity during the first five years of its existence (1902–1907), report of the zoological, botanical and physical-chemical department , in: Zeitschrift für Biologische Technik und Methodik , Leipzig, Volume 1, Issue 3 ff. (1908 / 09), pp. 234-264.
  • The inorganic border areas of biology (especially the comparison of crystals) . With 65 illustrations, Borntraeger Collection, Berlin, Volume 10, 1926.
  • Animal grafting. The transplantation of the body parts, organs and germs. (= Die Wissenschaft , Volume 75), Vieweg, Braunschweig 1926.
  • Introduction to Physiological Zoology. Physical and chemical functions of the animal body Deuticke Verlag, Leipzig and Vienna 1928.


  • 1917: Honorary doctorate in medicine from the University of Halle
  • 1929: Honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Riga
  • Decoration of honor 2nd class of the Red Cross
  • A memorial stele of the Leopoldina in Halle (Saale) in memory of nine members of the academy who were murdered in the concentration camps of the National Socialists or died of the inhuman and cruel conditions of the camp imprisonment also commemorates Hans Przibram


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Hans Leo Przibram: Paul Kammerer as a biologist. In: Monistic monthly books. Hamburg, November 1926, ZDB ID 516898-3
  2. ^ Arthur Koestler: The Case of the Midwife Toad. Hutchinson, London 1971; German: Der Krötenküsser , Molden, Vienna 1972, ISBN 3-217-00452-3 ; Rowohlt, Reinbek 1974, ISBN 3-499-16864-2 .
  3. Klaus Taschwer (see literature)
  4. Wolfgang L. Reiter: Destroyed and Forgotten: The Biological Research Institute and its scientists. In: Austrian Journal of History. Volume 10, Issue 4, Vienna 1999, pp. 585–614 ( online at wirtges.univie.ac.at/ ; PDF; 1.8 MB), p. 608.
  5. Hans Leo Przibram: Paul Kammerer as a biologist. In: Monistic monthly books. Hamburg, November 1926, ZDB ID 516898-3
  6. Leopoldina erects a stele in memory of Nazi victims (2009)