Brain Man

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

I realized that I spent so much time last week detailing everything that made Dr. Bernhard von Gudden shady that I forgot to mention the enduring impact he had on the field of neuroscience. I have my doubts about his diagnosis of Ludwig and their subsequent deaths, but you don’t become the psychiatrist to the royal family by being a mediocre doctor. If you were to ask a neuroscientist about von Gudden, they would likely have no knowledge of his ties to the tragic Swan King. What they would tell you about, however, is his storied career that changed the way the brain was studied and treated. Since you have a neuroscientist right here, I want to tell you about his five greatest contributions to the field.

The Gudden family grave in Bavaria. Bayern Kultur

Humane treatment of psychiatric patients: As the director of a Bavarian asylum, von Gudden stressed the importance of treating patients with dignity. He took his training at a facility that promoted patients to have freedom to be outdoors to the next level by banning the use of physical restraints. In addition, any bodily injuries sustained by patients were thought to be physical manifestations of their mental illness. Von Gudden rocked the psychiatry world by daring to suggest that maybe the broken ribs doctors observed were coming from staff abuse, not schizophrenia. Under his leadership, asylum “wardens” became “nurses”.

The institution in Werneck that von Gudden modernized now stands abandoned. Abandoned Spaces

The von Gudden method: One of his most famous experimental techniques is still used today. Known as the von Gudden method, it involves causing a lesion in animals while their brains are still developing. He used this method to look at how the overall anatomy of the brain changed, assuming correctly that if the lesion severed a connection between two brain regions, the loss of information flow would cause structural changes. This gave von Gudden insights into how the brain is wired as well as how important sensory input is for neural development.

The von Gudden method became so widely used that a book was written about it. Amazon

Weigert and Nissl stains: There is not a medical student in the world who is unacquainted with Weigert and Nissl stains. These stains are used to label the axons and cell bodies of neurons, respectively. Interestingly, von Gudden had a role in the development of both stains. Carl Weigert recalled almost giving up on his namesake method before receiving von Gudden’s encouragement. As for Franz Nissl, von Gudden allowed him to work in his own lab space and use his own supplies as he developed the stain. So not only do we have to consider von Gudden’s own work, but also that of those he mentored.

A spinal cord stained using the Weigert stain on the left and the Nissl stain on the right. The Weigert stain marks axons, which are found in the outer part of the spinal cord. The Nissl stain marks cell bodies, which is why the staining is focused on the middle of the spinal cord where neurons cell bodies are found. NYU Medical School

The Gudden microtome: Of course, stains are useless unless you have some good tissue to work with. Von Gudden addressed this problem by engineering the first microtome, a device used to cut the brain into thin sections. His microtome could cut a section of tissue just 55 microns thick (a sheet of paper is about 230 microns thick!). 150 years later, the microtome remains a critical tool for neuroscience research.

A drawing of Gudden’s original microtome, which is much more ornate than the mini deli slicer I use today. Hokasalo, 2006

Neuroanatomy: Von Gudden’s love for the brain led him to identify many structures that had been previously overlooked. In total, seven brain structures are named after him. In addition, he was able to characterize the neuronal connections that give rise to the sense of smell. Von Gudden also showed that some of the nerves that transport information from the eyes to the part of the brain responsible for vision cross over to the opposite side of the body, explaining why damage to the left side of the brain affects vision from the right visual field.

A diagram of the optic chasm, or Gudden commissure, where the optic nerves cross. This allows both sides of the brain to get visual input from one half of each eye. von Gudden was the first to prove this experimentally. Lecturio

Feel the Bern(hard)

The legacy of von Gudden is a perfect example of why we love doing what we do at ULTC: his story cannot be completely told through the lens of science or history alone. His impressive resume gives him credibility as a psychiatrist, but there are so many unanswered questions about Ludwig that still leave me in doubt about his diagnosis. In any case, he was a brilliant mind and undoubtedly would have accomplished more had it not been for his untimely death in Lake Sternberg.

I should also mention that we will be taking the month of May off here on the blog. I have my doctoral qualifying exam and if I want to be the next von Gudden, I need to study up! Explore our archives in the meantime and keep an eye out for us in your inbox later this summer. 


Bernhard von Gudden, Doctor and Founder of Modern Neuromorphology. (n.d.). The University Department of Psychiatry in Munich,21-38. doi:10.1007/978-3-540-74017-9_4

Danek, A., MD, Gudden, W., MD, & Distel, H., PhD. (1989). The Dream Kings Psychiatrist Bernhard von Gudden (1824-1886). Archives of Neurology,46(12), 1349. doi:10.1001/archneur.1989.00520480093026

Sarikcioglu, L. (2007). Johann Bernhard Aloys von Gudden: An outstanding scientist. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry,78(2), 195-195. doi:10.1136/jnnp.2006.106633

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