Alexander Gurwitsch

Alexander Gurwitsch bigraphy, stories - Biologists

Alexander Gurwitsch : biography

September 26, 1874 – July 27, 1954

Alexander Gavrilovich Gurwitsch (also Gurvich, Gurvitch) ( 1874–1954) was a Russian and Soviet biologist and medical scientist who originated the morphogenetic field theory and discovered the biophoton.

The Biophoton

After the 1917 revolution Gurwitsch fell upon hard times and accepted the chair of Histology at Taurida University, the chief seat of learning of the Crimean Peninsula, where he spent seven happy years. Here in 1923 he first observed biophotons or ultra-weak biological photon emissions; weak electromagnetic waves which were detected in the ultra-violet range of the spectrum.

Gurwitsch named the phenomenon mitogenetic radiation since he believed that this light radiation allowed the morphogenetic field to control embryonic development. His published observations, which related that cell-proliferation of an onion was accelerated by directing these rays down a tube, brought him great attention. Some five hundred attempts at replication, however, produced overwhelmingly negative results, so that the idea was neglected for decades until it commanded some renewed interest in the later 20th century.Brief popular accounts appear in G.L.Playfair and S.Hill, "The Cycles of Heaven" (Souvenir, 1978, Pan 1979) and S. Ostrander and L. Schroeder ,"PSI: Psychic Discoveries behind the Iron Curtain", Abacus 1973. However the furore, which may have sparked Wilhelm Reich’s similar Orgone experiments, brought Gurwitsch an international reputation that led to several European lecture-tours. His work influenced that of Paul Alfred Weiss in particular.

Later life

Lydia and Anna Gurwitsch Gurwitsch was Professor of Histology and Embryology at Moscow University from 1924 to 1929 but fell foul of the communist party and was forced to relinquish the chair. He then directed a laboratory at the Institute of Experimental Medicine in Leningrad from 1930 until 1945, though he was forced to evacuate during World War 2. In 1941 he was awarded a Stalin Prize for his mitogenetic radiation work since it had apparently led to a cheap and simple way of diagnosing cancer. He was director of the Institute of Experimental Biology in Leningrad from 1945 to 1948. He sought to redefine his "heretical" concept of the morphogenetic field in general essays, pointing to molecular interactions unexplained by chemistry.

Gurwitsch retired in 1948 after Trofim Lysenko came to power but continued working at home.Vadim J. Birstein. The Perversion Of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science. Westview Press (2004) ISBN 0-8133-4280-5 Sadly his wife Lydia died in 1951. In 1953 Irving Langmuir dubbed Gurwitsch’s ideas pathological science. However his daughter, Anna, continued his work and, shortly after his death, contributed papers that supported some aspects of her father’s work on "mitogenetic" rays.A.A.Gurwitsch, "Problems of mitogenetic radiation as an aspect of molecular biology", Meditaina, Leningrad 1968.

Early life

Gurwitch was the son of a Jewish provincial lawyer: his family was artistic and intellectual and he decided to study medicine only after failing to gain a place studying painting. After research in the laboratory of Karl Wilhelm von Kupffer he began to specialise in embryology, publishing his first paper, on the biochemistry of gastrulation, in 1895. He graduated from Munich University in 1897, having studied under A.A. Boehm.

Morphogenetic field theory

After graduation he worked in the histology laboratories of the universities of Strasbourg and Bern until 1907. At this time he met his future wife and lifelong collaborator, the Russian-born medical trainee Lydia Felicine. His continuing interest, with the help of his relative Leonid Mandelstam, in the advances in physics at that time was to help in the formulation of his morphogenetic field theory, which Gurwitsch himself viewed throughout his life as no more than a suggestive hypothesis.

Serving in 1904 with the Russian army in the field he had much time to think, and he reasoned with himself that even a full understanding of every developmental process might not provide, or even necessarily lead to, a sense of understanding of ontogeny as a whole: a holistic, "top-down" model was needed to explain the ordered sequence of such individual processes. This conviction led him to adopt field theory as an embryological paradigm. His ideas had much in common with his contemporary Driesch and the two developed a mutual professional admiration.This account, and much other biographical material presented here, is based upon the short biography by his grandson Lev Beloussov, which is in turn based upon Gurwitsch’s own unpublished autobiographical notes. – retrieved May 2008.