Alexander Gurwitsch


Alexander Gurwitsch : biography

September 26, 1874 – July 27, 1954

During the next decade Gurwitsch contributed a series of landmark papers arguing that the orientation and division of cells was random at local level but was rendered coherent by an overall field which obeyed the regular inverse square law – an enterprise that required extensive statistical analysis. In 1907 he published his general treatise Atlas and Outline of Embryology of Vertebrates and of Man.


Field theories of morphogenesis had a heyday in the 1920s but the success of genetics confined such ideas to the background of biology. Gurwitsch had been ahead of his time in his interest in the emergent properties of the embryo but more modern self-organization theories (see, for example, Ilya Prigogine) and treatments of non-equilibrium thermodynamics in living systems would show the extent to which the vectors he described can be generated without the assumption of an overall field, so that the search for a physical field was abandoned in favour of more neutral concepts like the paradigm of Systems Biology. The early interest in physics which inspired Gurwitsch in the end tended to render his ideas untenable.Beloussov, op.cit. The "mitogenetic ray" was one of the scientific topics qualified by Irving Langmuir as pathological science.For a review and bibliography, see Hollander and Claus, J. Opt. Soc. Am., 25, 270-286 (1935)

However, the tenacity of Anna Gurwitsch, together with the development of the photon counter multiplier, resulted in the confirmation of the phenomenon of biophotons in 1962. The observation was duplicated in a western laboratory by Quickenden and Que Hee in 1974.T.I.Quickenden and S.S.Que Hee, "Weak luminescence from the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae and the existence of mitogenetic radiation", Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 60 (2) 764-9, 1974, cited in Playfair and Hill, op. cit. p. 366 n. 24. In the same year Dr. V.P.Kazmacheyev announced that his research team in Novosibirsk had detected intercellular communication by means of these rays.Playfair and Hill op.cit. p107 Fritz-Albert Popp claims they exhibit coherent patterns. These studies have drawn only fringe interest.

There has been a recent revival in field theories of life, albeit again at the fringes of science, particularly among those who seek to include an account of developmental psychobiology. The influence of Gurvitch’s theory is particularly evident upon the work of the plant physiologist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake.