The Faculty of Medicine in Geneva was opened in 1872. Four years later, after the resignation of Brown-Séquard from a chair he never occupied, Schiff accepted an invitation to chair the Department of Experimental Physiology. After a prolonged public debate in which Schiff convinced the anti-vivisectionists that his experiments were necessary for the advancement of medicine and were conducted under impeccable ethical care, he was finally able to proceed with his experiments.
Schiff’s new laboratory became a center for visits by many scientists and was hailed by Claude Bernard as well as by German scientists. He became known as a scientist who took nothing for granted, one who checked and rechecked his results to perfection. It was no wonder that when two eminent Swiss surgeons, Theodor Kocher and Jacques-Louis Reverdin, struggled with goiters common in Switzerland, Schiff was asked to return to his thyroidectomy experiments of 1856. Schiff demonstrated again that the effects of thyroidectomy in humans were identical to those in all other mammals. His pioneering discovery was that thyroid “grafts into the peritoneum reversed, though temporarily, the effects of thyroidectomy”. He therefore suggested preparing “a thyroid paste” for repeated injections, but explained that his laboratory conditions were not suitable for such a project. It is plausible that this decision, stemming from a sense of responsibility, pushed Schiff’s achievement to near-oblivion and he was barely cited. Only in 1891 could George R. Murray report the successful treatment of a human patient by injections of thyroid extracts. The solid, well-grounded accomplishment and foresight of Schiff in thyroid research stand in contrast to the imprudent self-injections of testicular extracts by which Brown-Séquard won fame as the “father of organotherapy”.13–16
The liberal atmosphere in Geneva attracted many Jewish, Polish, and other ethnic groups, as well as women students and young scientists from the Russian Empire whose entry to their local universities was denied because of numerus clausus.17 Dr Hillel Yaffe (1864–1936), who became a pioneer physician in Northern Eretz–Israel, was one of those students, and in the years 1888–1889 he served as an assistant to Schiff. In an affectionate letter (in French) to H. Friedenwald, Yaffe portrayed his “beloved teacher” as a man of “very short stature, his beautiful face framed by a white beard and long hair, with piercing though kind gray eyes … modest to the extreme, negligent of his clothing, interested only in Science and in social deductions, without admitting the commonplace appropriateness and what we call the laws of Society”(Figure 2).18 Schiff was an indefatigable worker who professed that the best relaxation was to move to another subject. Indeed, his laboratory consisted of a very large hall with many laboratory benches at which groups of assistants performed various experiments.
An enigmatic sentence in Yaffe’s letter deserves special attention: “Many of the things that he had discovered, or that he had anticipated, were published under other names and he, even if with some resentment, accepted it philosophically without murmur and opened himself only to his assistants or scholars of his family.” It is tempting to read this enigmatic sentence as evidence that Schiff, during the height of the vivisection controversy, chose to publish under a pen name to avoid prosecution and persecution. If it were really so, he could, in the liberal atmosphere of Geneva, reclaim his authorship. Another possibility, entertained by the present author, is that Schiff refers to findings or ideas that were expropriated.
Yaffe reported that, despite not recognizing religion or nationality, Schiff always asserted his ancestry and sympathized and protected the young Jewish students with profound indignation for their prosecutors. In this spirit he secured the position of Assistant Professor of Physiology in 1888 for the exiled DrWaldemarMordechaiHaffkine that enabled him to go to Paris and London later, to build his career as the developer of the anti-vaccine for cholera and bubonic plague.19
Very little is known about Schiff’s personal life and family. He married his cousin, Claudia Trier. Their son, Roberto, became a professor of Chemistry at the University of Pisa. Mario, a son from a second marriage, became a professor of French Literature in Florence.
Several years prior to his death from diabetes in 1896, his adoring students and assistants started to collect his published scientific books as well as the text-books of physiology. The articles in German and French were assembled in a four-volume book entitled “Moritz Schiff’s Gesammelte Beiträge Zur Physiologie” (Lausanne, 1894–1898). In volume 1, Schiff himself rearranged some of his articles on centers in the nervous system that are related to respiration.
Immediately after his death, the British Medical Journal published a highly praising obituary but, in the last century, there were only a few attempts 1,5,13,18,20–22 to recognize Schiff’s contributions to nearly all fields of physiology, at a period when experimental physiology was still taking its formative steps. Schiff should also be regarded as a person who paid dearly for his adherence to the ideas of freedom and liberalism and to genuine physiological research. His personality, contributions, and impact deserve a thorough biography.