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Egenis/CMH seminar with Professor Holger Maehle

The Triple Origin of the Stem Cell Concept: Embryology, Haematology, and Cancer Research

Professor Holger Maehle is Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease, Durham University

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This research paper aims at understanding how the notion of ‘stem cells’ was historically constructed and established. In particular, it explores the scientific and medical contexts in which the idea of stem cells emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and which wider meanings were attached to this type of cells.

My preliminary findings show that work in at least three major areas was constitutive of the stem cell concept: embryology, haematology, and cancer research. Adopting the term ‘Stammzelle’ (stem cell) from Ernst Haeckel’s studies of phylogenetic and ontogenetic development, the Würzburg zoologist Theodor Boveri (1862-1915) was influential in introducing the concept into embryological research and genetics. Artur Pappenheim (1870-1916), a student of Rudolf Virchow in Berlin and pioneer of haematology, subsequently applied the stem cell concept in his work on blood formation (haematopoiesis) and leukaemia. Finally, pathologists focusing on cancer research, e.g. Max Askanazy (1865-1940) in Geneva, tried to understand the development of tumours (especially of teratomas) as uncontrolled growth of residual embryonic stem cells in the adult body.

These and other findings suggest that physiological as well as pathological roles were attributed to stem cells from early on. Moreover, they indicate that the current research strands of ‘embryonic’ and ‘adult’ stem cell research have deep historical roots. The trajectories of these strands across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are a promising topic for further historical research.         


Byrne House