Paul Langerhans

Paul Wilhelm Heinrich Langerhans (1847 – 1888) was a German physician and zoologist.

He is eponymous with Langerhans cell (1868) of the immune system, and the islets of Langerhans (1869) in the pancreas after discovering both while still a medical student at the University of Berlin.

Langerhans also published works on leprosy, tuberculosis, and zoological research of the Canary Islands and Madeira.

  • Born 25 July 1847 in Berlin, Germany
  • 1865 – Commenced medical studies at the University of Jena, Germany, then later continuing his studies at the University of Berlin under Dr Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) and Dr Julius Friedrich Cohnheim (1839-1884)
  • 1869 – Graduated with M.D. degree from the University of Berlin with completion of his doctoral thesis “Beitrage zur mikroskopischen Anatomie der Bauchspeicheldruse”
  • 1870 – Travelled to Syria, Jordan, and Palestine, publishing works on leprosy and the anthropology of the local inhabitants
  • 1870 – Served during the Franco-Prussian War as a military doctor
  • 1871 – Privatdozent (associate professor) of pathology at the University of Freiburg
  • 1874 – Professor extraordinarius of pathology and anatomy at the University of Freiburg
  • 1874 – Took a prolonged absence from the university following deterioration of his health with pulmonary tuberculosis, and relocated to Madeira
  • 1878 – Forced to resign from his professorship due to continued ill health, and permanently relocated to Madeira
  • 1879 – Worked as a physician and conducted zoological research in Madeira.
  • Died 20 July 1888 in Funchal, Madeira of tuberculosis

Medical Eponyms
Langerhans cell (1868)

Antigen–presenting dendritic cells of the skin epidermis. Langerhans cells may be found in other tissues such as lymph nodes, particularly in association with Langerhans cell histiocytosis

In 1867, Paul Langerhans, whilst still a medical student, described dendritic non-pigmentary cells, or “our dark bodies”, throughout the skin epidermis seen under a light microscope following staining using Cohnheim’s gold chloride technique. He initially postulated that these cells were receptors in the peripheral nervous system of the skin. Langerhans published his findings in a paper titled Ueber die Nerven der Menschlichen Haut (1868). His initial drawings of his light microscopy observations were remarkably similar to current immunofluorescence images.

Langerhan cell 1868
Querschnitt durch ein frisch vergoldetes Hautstfick yore Vorderarm [Cross section through a freshly gilded skin piece on the forearm] Langerhans 1868
  • 1872 – The first eponymous association with Langerhans was proposed separately by Theodor Eimer (1843-1898) and Enrico Sertoli (1842-1910), who described the cells as ‘Langerhans’sche Körperchen‘ and ‘corpuscoli di Langerhans’, respectively, which translates to ‘Langerhans bodies’.
  • 1875 – Friedrich Sigmund Merkel (1845-1919) first used the eponymous term “Langerhans’ schen” (Langerhans cells) in his paper ‘Tastzellen und Tastkörperchen bei den Hausthieren und beim Menschen‘.
  • 1882 – Langerhans published a correction of his initial postulation of the cells’ function, stating “I am now convinced … that my cells are in no way essential for nerve endings” based on histological findings by Mojsisovics in 1875 and Merkel in 1880, respectively.
  • 1951 Ferreira-Marques compiled over 120 articles in the existing literature between 1868 to 1951 investigating Langerhans cells, but the cells’ function remained elusive.
  • 1973 Silberberg described the apposition of Langerhans cells and mononuclear lymphocyte-like cells after 4-6 hours following topical application of mercury bichloride only in subjects with allergic reactions to the substance. Mercury bichloride was known to cause contact hypersensitivity. This was a landmark paper in proposing an immune function of Langerhans cells in antigen presentation to lymph node T cells.
Langerhans cells 1868
Langerhans drawings of his light microscopy observations
Islets of Langerhans (1869)

Clusters of cells in the pancreas responsible for production of endocrine hormones. The cells in the islets include alpha cells, which release glucagon; beta cells, which release insulin; delta cells, which release somatostatin; epsilon cells, which release ghrelin; and pancreatic polypeptide cells, which released pancreatic polypeptide.

Between 1867 and 1869, Paul Langerhans conducted research on the pancreas as part of his thesis for medical school. He injected Berlin-blue dye into the pancreatic ducts of rabbits, and observed the spindle-shaped central acinar cells with fine granules which he postulated to be fat cells after these granules turned black with osmic acid. These were later shown to be zymogen by Heidenhain in 1875.

Langerhans also described clusters of irregularly shaped cells among the acinar cells in the parenchyma:

… kleine Zellen von meist ganz homogenem Inhalt und polygonaler mit rundern Kern ohne Kernkorpechen meist zu zweien oder zu kleinen Gruppen beisammen liegende.

Langerhans, 1869

… small cells of almost perfect homogeneous content and of a polygonal form, with round nuclei without nucleoli, mostly lying together in pairs or small groups. This cell is a small irregular polygonal structure … Its cytoplasm is brilliant and free of any granules, the nucleus distinct, round, and of moderate size … Its diameter is between 0.0096 to 0.012 mm … These cells lie in rounded groups together in considerable numbers scattered within the parenchyma

Langerhans, 1869

Je désigne provisoirement sur le nom d’îlots de Langerhans du nom de l’auteur qui a le premier attiré l’attention sur eux

Languesse, 1893

I designate provisionally on the name of islets of Langerhans of the name of the author who first drew attention to them

Languesse, 1893

Major Publications


Paul Wilhelm Heinrich Langerhans (1847 – 1888) is often referred to as Paul Langerhans Jr. – the son of a Berlin physician Dr. Paul August Herrmann Langerhans (1820 – 1909)

Langerhans and Langhans: two eponyms which have similar spelling; sound similar when spoken aloud; and were both published in the same journal in the same year – Virchow’s Archive (1868). The terms are not infrequently mixed up in journal articlestextbooks, and histology reports. The eponymous resemblance between these names has led to instances of misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment with serious clinical consequences [e.g. Pritchard et al 2003]

  • Theodor Langhans (1839 – 1915) described multinucleate cells characteristic of the systemic granulomatous disorders such as tuberculosis and sarcoidosis (Langhans cell or Langhans giant cell)
  • Paul Langerhans (1847 – 1888) identified the antigen-presenting dendritic cells of the skin (Langerhans cells). These cells may also be found in other tissues, such as lymph nodes, in association with Langerhans cell histiocytosis


Doctor in Australia. Keen interest in internal medicine, medical education, and medical history.

BA MA (Oxon) MBChB (Edin) FACEM FFSEM. Emergency physician, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.  Passion for rugby; medical history; medical education; and asynchronous learning #FOAMed evangelist. Co-founder and CTO of Life in the Fast lane | Eponyms | Books | Twitter |

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