Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel


Famous scholars from Kiel:

Victor Hensen


A physiologist, doctor and marine biologist, Hensen was a pioneer of what were in his day the fledgling natural sciences. He introduced the term "plankton".


It is around 40 metres long, looks a little like a salvage ship in its red and white colours and nowadays cruises through the shallow coastal waters of Europe under a Maltese flag. The "Victor Hensen" bears the name of a famous marine researcher, even though it has been taken out of service as an active research ship. "I first heard of the name Victor Hensen on board of this ship", explains Professor Ulf Riebesell from the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences (IFM-GEOMAR) who made his first research voyages in the early 1980s. The expeditions on the ship led him to investigate the person of Victor Hensen in more detail.

Christian Andreas Victor Hensen was born in Schleswig on 10 February 1835. He studied medicine in Würzburg, Berlin and Kiel, including under Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), the leading practitioner of the beginnings of modern orthodox medicine. After his doctorate in 1859 he taught at Kiel University, initially as a prosector and from 1864 to 1911 as professor of physiology. His main area of research was initially the anatomy and physiology of the sense organs. In later years his main interest was increasingly in marine biology. He led several research expeditions in the Atlantic. He was particularly fascinated by the vast number of micro-organisms drifting freely in the water.

In Hensen's day the role of plankton as the basis for all marine life was unknown. "Victor Hensen was the first to recognize the sea as a production site. On a plankton expedition supported by the Humboldt Foundation (then the Prussian Royal Academy of Sciences) in 1889 he realized that the sea is a producer", says the Kiel zoologist Professor Thomas Bosch. The discovery of the importance of plankton was as important in its day for the understanding of marine biology as the sequencing of the human genome is for the understanding of human biology today. Bosch notes that the Cluster of Excellence "The Future Ocean", for example, continues to benefit from Hensen's insights today in its projects on marine resources.

Victor Hensen's work in marine biology was the basis for the later establishment of the chair in planktology in Kiel, which existed until the 1940s. Even if the research department has a broader ambit today, its research continues to be based on Hensen's methods of quantitative planktology. "He attempted to find out where there was more or less plankton and what factors determined this", explains the current occupant of the chair Professor Riebesell.

Hensen was also active as a chemist and invented a method for the extraction of chemically pure glycogen from animal tissue. This substance - a sugar compound - is today a common ingredient in the manufacture of medicines. Until the end of his life Hensen was chairman of the Prussian Marine Commission. Victor Hensen died in Kiel on 5 April 1924.






Passion for earthworms

Victor Hensen studied the biology of earthworms in the garden of his Kiel institute and was therefore in practice also a zoologist. He discovered that earthworms bore down into the ground up to depths of well over one metre and that the tunnels left by them are used as guide paths by plant roots. Hensen's controversial publications on the usefulness of earthworms won him considerable renown in agricultural circles. Hensen was even cited by Charles Darwin in his last book "The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms".

►  Back to top

Responsible for this page: Press, Communication und Marketing Services
phone +49 (0)431 880-2104, e-Mail ► presse@uv.uni-kiel.de