Kiel University
You are here: HomeKiel UniversityHistory of the universityFamous Scholars from Kiel

print view  |  zur deutschen Fassung

Famous scholars from Kiel:

Johann Friedrich August von Esmarch

Esmarch was Director of the Surgery Unit in Kiel from 1854 to 1898. The famous war doctor introduced many new methods for war and trauma medicine and co-founded first aid in Germany.

Friedrich Esmarch was born into an old Schleswig-Holstein family of priests and lawyers in Tönning in 1823. He followed his father into the medical profession. "Like many eminent doctors, von Esmarch was a very mediocre pupil who would never have been allowed to study medicine by the standards of today, just like Billroth and Sauerbruch after him", writes Professor Christian Andree in an article about the history of the Trauma Surgery Unit. "It was not until he was studying for his degree that his gift for and interest in medicine emerged, though he also had the best teachers he could have had at that time in von Langenbeck, who introduced ether anaesthesia in Kiel in 1847, and Stromeyer, under whom von Esmarch was awarded his postdoctoral lecturing qualification", explains the Kiel medical historian. Both teachers were involved in setting up the Schleswig-Holstein Army medical corps in the war with Denmark from 1848 to 1850.

In 1848, Esmarch was awarded a doctorate in medicine after studying at the universities of Kiel and Göttingen. In 1854, he replaced his then father-in-law Stromeyer as Director of the Surgery Unit in Kiel, where he focused on war surgery. During the war, his contribution to the military hospitals was enormous. His experiences there were included in his comprehensive "Handbuch der kriegschirurgischen Technik" (Handbook of War Surgery) (1877), just one of his many works on war surgery and first aid. "He did pioneering work in several fields of surgery", states Andree. Ligation of the upper arm and thigh to stop the flow of blood as first aid for injuries or in preparation for surgery was called "Esmarch's haemostasis" after him. "This idea for haemostasis, which had not been performed until then, is as simple as it is ingenious."

Esmarch served as a surgeon in the wars of 1848-1850 and 1864 (German-Danish wars) as well as 1866 and 1870/1871. In 1870, he was appointed Brigadier and Consultant Surgeon in the army medical corps. He became one of the most distinguished trauma surgeons and later made a name for himself as co-founder of first aid in Germany.

In the summer of 1881, Esmarch visited London, where he discovered the St John's Ambulance Association. This organisation had set up medical schools all over England and trained volunteers to provide emergency and medical services. When he returned home at the beginning of 1882, Esmarch began preparations for the first German course for first-aid volunteers in Kiel. This also led to the publication of "Die erste Hülfe bei plötzlichen Unglücksfällen - Ein Leitfaden für Samariter-Schulen" (First Aid for Unforeseen Accidents – A Manual for First-Aid Volunteer Schools), one of the most well-known first-aid manuals. In subsequent decades, it was translated into almost 30 languages and saw the publication of its 50th edition in 1931. On 5th May 1882, he founded the "Deutscher Samariter-Verein" (German First-Aid Volunteer Association) in Kiel, which was crucial to the development of emergency medical services in other German cities.

As well as a distinguished doctor, Esmarch was an important figure in society thanks to his second marriage to an aunt of the Empress in 1872. His home was regularly visited by the high nobility. Andree explains, "After the death of his first wife, Esmarch was remarried very quickly, though it has to be stressed that he did not marry; he was married". Princess Henriette of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg (born in 1833), the resolute aunt of Empress Auguste, the wife of Emperor Wilhelm II, decided to marry the renowned doctor. "Through his ties to the imperial family, Esmarch acquired an enormous reputation, and Emperor Wilhelm II, who was often in Kiel, also supported the university", highlights Andree. Esmarch himself was ennobled by the Kaiser in 1887.

However, Andree also has negative things to say about Esmarch. In 1883/1884, for instance, he forced his assistant and consultant, Professor Gustav Adolf Neuber, out of the Surgery Unit. Neuber was very unhappy with the success rate of the operations that were performed at that time. Many people died from the consequences of surgery and wound infections, but he was unable to implement his suggestions for improvement under Esmarch. Andree explains, "Esmarch saw the capable Neuber as a rival and they could not continue working together". In 1885, Neuber bought the residential building at Königsweg 8 and converted it into a clinic, where he was the first person in the world to implement principles of hygiene that are still regarded as pioneering for sterile surgery today.

In 1903, on his 80th birthday, Esmarch was made honorary citizen of the city of Kiel for his services to the city, medical care and military hospitals. In Kiel, there is a street, a home belonging to the German federation of workers and first-aid volunteers Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund and a pharmacy named after him.

Kerstin Nees

Key word: Esmarch’s haemostasis and triangular bandage

Gauze dressings and triangular bandages, items that are now part of every first-aid kit, were first introduced by Friedrich von Esmarch. He had already brought first aid to public attention in his 1869 work "Der erste Verband auf dem Schlachtfelde" (The First Bandage on the Battlefield), which had been published many times. Esmarch developed two important procedures that are still used today and carry his name: the Esmarch-Heiberg manoeuvre and Esmarch's haemostasis. The famous Esmarch manoeuvre is still important in emergency medicine today. Pushing the lower jaw in front of the upper jaw in the way that he described keeps the upper airways of unconscious or anaesthetised patients clear. This facilitates both spontaneous breathing and artificial respiration in the form of a mask or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The term "haemostasis" can also be traced back to Esmarch: the arms or legs of a patient are elevated and blood expelled from the limbs by forceful stroking. In order to reduce bleeding from injuries or during surgery, a rubber bandage is wrapped around the limb from the outside to the inside or a tourniquet cuff applied. After promoting the use of ice to treat bruising or abscesses, he was affectionately nicknamed "Fiete Isbüddel" (Friedrich Ice Pack).

►  Back to top

Responsible for this page: Press, Communication und Marketing Services
phone +49 (0)431 880-2104, e-Mail ►