Die Kenntnis der Krebskrankheit aus historischer Perspektive: Das beispiellose Werk des Berliner Arztes Jacob Wolff (1861–1938)


  • V. Wunderlich


  • Acta Historica Leopoldina


  • Acta Hist Leopoldina 74: 221-247


  • The history of the science of cancer was not considered separately from the general history of medicine until the beginning of the 20th century. In 1907 the Berlin general practitioner Jacob Wolff published the first volume of his work Die Lehre von der Krebskrankheit von den ältesten Zeiten bis zur Gegenwart [The Science of Cancerous Disease from Earliest Times to the Present], thus founding a separate historiography of the science of cancer. Wolff was influenced by Ernst von Leyden and the then usual collective research and published his work with the consent of the Committee for Cancer Research, which was founded in 1900. Three more volumes followed until 1928. They were very positively received by his contemporaries, as is evident in the reviews published at the time. However, the requirements of historical representation were not met in all parts. Later, the work was largely (albeit never completely) forgotten; it did not receive renewed attention until after the first volume was translated into English towards the end of the century. In this essay, four reasons are presented for why the work was temporarily forgotten: (1.) the rapid development and profound changes in cancer research after the Second World War, which soon made the work obsolete, (2.) the shift of the focus of cancer research to the Anglo-Saxon countries from about 1940 onwards, accompanied by a steadily decreasing readership, (3.) the Jewish descent of the author, which had a lasting effect, particularly during the Nazi period, and (4.) the fact that the author was not a genuine historian. Today the volumes are considered to be a standard work for the history of cancer research up to about 1900. A similarly comprehensive historical work on cancer theory has not been written either before or since. Thus far, however, the entire work and its author have not been the subject of historical research. In this essay, the changing history of the work in five epochs and the biography of the author are presented. Only after the death of Wolff did oncology develop into a single multidisciplinary science. However, his work had no influence on this development.