The nineteenth-century Czech physician and natural scientist Jan Evangelista Purkyně is perhaps best known to people today for identifying the unique nature of individual fingerprints, a discovery which has played a vital role in countless criminal investigations. Nevertheless, this is just one of many discoveries by Purkyně, who was responsible for a number of epoch-making contributions to different scientific disciplines. He was also a key figure in the Czech national revival.
Jan Evangelista Purkyně was born in 1787 into a peasant family in the town of Libochovice about 40 km from Prague. His humble origins might have limited his educational opportunities if it had not been for a prodigious musical talent, which saw him recruited as a choirboy for a Piarist monastery in Moravia. The monks there also gave him a classicist education and he subsequently joined the order as a teacher in 1804.
In 1807, he left the order and walked 300 km to Prague, where he started studying philosophy at Prague University while eking out a living as a tutor. He later began studying medicine in 1810. He graduated in 1819 with a thesis based on his studies of human vision. This early work was much admired by the German author Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who may have been instrumental in getting Purkyně a position at the university in the Polish town of Wroclaw in 1822.
Purkyně was to remain in Wroclaw for 27 years. While there he soon established a reputation for his revolutionary teaching methods, which involved using demonstrations, experiments and laboratory work in his lessons. Purkyně's scientific output in Wroclaw was also prodigious. In 1842, he established the world's first ever physiological laboratory. In cardiology, for example, he described the fibres in the cardiac muscle. These fibres are actually called 'Purkyně fibres' and they transmit nerve impulses. He also studied the brain, and discovered what are known as 'Purkyně cells' in the cerebellum. There are many other parts of the body's microscopic structures, which bear his name. Consequently his name is very well known all over the world. Besides being the first person to realise that fingerprints can be used for identification purposes, JE Purkyně was also one of the first people to develop a theory of cells as the basic structure of the human organism. He made scores of other discoveries as well, such as being the first to identify human sweat glands and the reaction of the pupil of the eye to changes in light intensity. Because of his studies of eye movement he came up with a device that could mimic the movement of things like people walking. In this sense, he was actually one of the founders of cinematography. Purkyně was also a pioneer in the field of comparative physiology, which involved a lot of laboratory work involving live animals. He did a lot of experiments with animals. This was also very interesting because in some of his papers he underlined the ethical point of view in terms of dealing with animals. He emphasised the need for an ethical approach to animals. This was really an exception at that time.
Despite living abroad in Wroclaw for so many years, Purkyne never lost touch with his homeland. He was an ardent supporter of the Czech language and played a role in modernising it by helping create Czech terminology to ensure the language kept abreast of the latest scientific discoveries and developments. When he eventually returned to Prague in 1849 to take the chair of physiology at Prague University, he continued to support the development of the Czech language at a time when intellectual life was dominated by German. He published many of his papers in Czech and also championed the acceptance of Czech as a teaching language at the university.
In 1853, Purkyně began publishing the important Czech science journal Živa (meaning "alive"). This publication was a major achievement at a time when publishing activity was severely hampered by reduced press freedom in Austro-Hungary under the reactionary Minister of the Interior Alexander von Bach. Ziva magazine was a vitally important publication for the development of the Czech intelligentsia during the national revival. In fact, Živa magazine not only published work by important researchers, it also published contributions from popular literary figures such as Božena Němcová, who had a very warm relationship with Jan Evangelista Purkyně and who also naturally relied on him for support.
Jan Evangelista Purkyně died in 1868, leaving behind a huge scientific legacy and a burgeoning Czech national consciousness, which he had played a major role in fostering.