Ludwig von Bertalanffy

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Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy (born September 19, 1901 in Atzgersdorf , Austria ; † June 12, 1972 in Buffalo , New York , USA ) was one of the most important theoretical biologists and systems theorists of the 20th century . He was a member of the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina (since 1968) and the New York Academy of Sciences .


Ludwig von Bertalanffy was born in 1901 in Atzgersdorf near Vienna as the son of Gustav Carl von Bertalanffy, the head of the railway station in Pressburg , and Caroline Agnes Vogl from Vienna . He grew up as an only child and was tutored by private tutors until he was ten, and then attended high school in Vienna XII. Rosasgasse. During this time he also maintained contact with Paul Kammerer , a neighbor who was a famous biologist and at the same time a role model for him.

In 1918 he began to study art history and philosophy at the University of Innsbruck , but moved to Vienna in 1924. Over time, he was more and more torn between changing his studies. So he made the decision to finally study biology, because he was of the opinion that he could become a philosopher at a later point in time. At the University of Vienna , he was interested in both philosophy and the natural sciences (especially biology).

In 1926 he wrote under his doctoral supervisor Moritz Schlick , the physicist and natural philosopher, his doctoral thesis on the physicist and natural philosopher Gustav Fechner with the title: "Fechner and the problem of higher order integration". He received his doctorate in philosophy. In 1934 he received his habilitation.

Bertalanffy joined the NSDAP in 1939 and one year later became an adjunct professor at the University of Vienna. After the end of the Second World War, his professorial title was revoked due to his membership in the NSDAP and his teaching license revoked.

He was later professor at the University of London (1948–49), at the University of Montreal (1949), at the University of Ottawa (1950–54), at the University of Southern California (1955–58), at the Menninger Foundation (1958 –60), at the University of Alberta in Edmonton (1961–68) and from 1969 to 1972 at the State University of New York in Buffalo (SUNY).

Bertalanffy died of a heart attack in 1972.


In 1924 Bertalanffy met his future wife Maria Bauer, whom he would have next to him for the next 40 years almost without interruption. They married in 1925. Maria also studied, but never finished her studies. Instead, she supported her husband as much as she could. Together they had a son who would later go into cancer research and thus continue his father's work.


In the course of his life, the scientist dealt with the topics of physiology and cancer research , biophysics of open systems (he introduced the concept of steady state ) and thermodynamics of living systems, which he distinguished from the closed systems of physics.

He wrote a general system theory that tries to find and formalize common laws in physical, biological and social systems on the basis of methodical holism . Principles that are found in one class of systems should also be observed in other systems. These include, for example: complexity , balance , feedback and self-organization .

Bertalanffy differentiates between different types of equilibria in systems :

  • Dynamic equilibrium is the umbrella term for real equilibrium and steady state :
  • Real equilibrium is achieved in closed systems that exchange neither matter nor energy with their surroundings. It represents the state of maximum entropy , so the system can no longer do any work. All macroscopic state variables are constant, even if microscopic processes continue. (Example: chemical equilibrium )
  • A steady state occurs in open systems that exchange matter or energy with their surroundings. It is characterized by the constancy of a quantity that is brought about by primary regulation (reactions based on simple principles of kinetics and thermodynamics).
  • Homeostatic equilibrium , also a steady state, is established in open systems through secondary regulation. These systems are equipped with a special information system that creates negative feedback.

As a theoretical biologist, Ludwig von Bertalanffy was a critic of the reductionist evolutionary model of neo-Darwinism , which he characterized as vague, poorly verifiable and dogmatic.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy's systems theory played a decisive role in the nursing theory of the US nursing theorist Imogene King (1923–2007). In the field of psychiatric nursing, the American nurse Shirley Smoyak published a paper on "psychiatric nurses as family therapists" in 1975, in which she referred fundamentally to Ludwig von Bertalanffy.


  • Nikolaus von Kues (1928).
  • Critical Theory of Formation (1928).
  • Life Science and Education (1930),
  • Theoretical Biology (1932).
  • The Structure of Life (1937).
  • From the Molecule to the World of Organisms (1940).
  • The biological worldview (1949).
  • General System Theory. In: Biologia Generalis. 1/1949, pp. 114-129.
  • The Theory of Open Systems in Physics and Biology. In: Science. Volume 111, 1950, pp. 23-29.
  • Biophysics of the steady state (1953).
  • The evolution of organisms. in creation belief and evolution theory. 1953, pp. 53-66.
  • Robots, men and minds (1967).
  • The Organismic Psychology and Systems Theory (1968)
  • General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications (1969).

Secondary literature

  • Luitfried Salvini-Plawen , Maria Mizzaro: 150 years of zoology at the University of Vienna . In: Zoological-Botanical Society in Austria (Hrsg.): Negotiations of the Zoological-Botanical Society in Austria . tape 136 . Vienna 1999, p. 1–76 ( PDF on ZOBODAT ).
  • David Pouvreau: Une biographie non officielle de Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901–1972) . Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science, Vienna 2006, ISBN 978-3-200-00840-3 (French, 102 pp., [PDF]).

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Member entry of Ludwig von Bertalanffy (with picture and CV) at the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina , accessed on March 9, 2017.
  2. ^ Baptismal register Vienna-Atzgersdorf, vol. 15, p. 333
  3. Bertalanffy, (Karl) Ludwig von (1901–1972), biologist , Austrian Biographical Lexicon 1815–1950 .
  4. Hubert Kolling (Ed.): Biographical lexicon on nursing history “Who was who in nursing history”. Volume 7 hps media nidda 2015, pp. 148–150.
  5. Shirley Smoyak: The Psychiatric Nurse as a Family Therapist. In: Nursing Research. 25, 1972, 3, pp. 200-200.
  6. ^ Maria Mischo-Kelling, Karin Wittneben: Nursing education and nursing theories. 1st edition. Urban & Schwarzenberg, Munich / Vienna / Baltimore 1995, p. 140, p. 198.