60 years of research and still going strong

Ewald Weibel, Professor Emeritus of anatomy at the University of Bern, is still publishing at the age of 88 and was recently profiled in a video by the American Physiological Society. In it, he talks about his rich life as a researcher – and how the thirst for knowledge led him to count peas or to go on safari in Kenya.

By Nathalie Matter 2017/12/28

In his 60 years of research, Ewald Weibel has published more than 400 articles and multiple books. He is a holder of the "Swiss Nobel Prize" Marcel Benoist Prize, honorary doctor, pioneer in the field of electron microscopy, established the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Bern as the director, acted as the rector, and made the case for bringing science down from the ivory tower. The American Physiological Society has now honoured his significant contribution to the development of physiology in a video interview. In it, Ewald Weibel talks about his career, his proudest scientific achievements and a good many anecdotes.

The pea experiment

His passion for research was awakened at an early age: at the Aarau cantonal school, which Albert Einstein has attended 50 years earlier – and has never been extinguished. "I have always had a broad range of interests," says Weibel. Although he has spent a lifetime teaching anatomy, he considers himself to be more than a physiologist, he is interested in the interaction of vital process in the organism, and in particular in gas exchange in the alveoli. The number of these alveoli in the human lungs was not yet known at the end of the 1950s because these small structures could only be seen under a microscope in thin slices.

Together with a cardiologist, Weibel was able to present a counting method for determining the number of alveoli in such slices thanks to an experiment using peas inlaid in gelatine: there are around 300 million alveoli in the human lungs. The pea experiment was published in the "Journal of Applied Physiology", one of the best-known journals in this field – "and probably the first time that vegetables were represented in it," Weibel remembers.

Schafften es bis ins renommierte «Journal of Applied Physiology»: Weibels Schnitt der Erbsen in der Gelatine. © Ewald Weibel
It made it into the renowned "Journal of Applied Physiology": Weibel's slice of peas in gelatine. © Ewald Weibel

In the middle of his scientifically very fruitful stay in the USA, he had to leave the States in 1962 because he had become an "illegal immigrant" upon the expiry of a research grant. Back in Switzerland, he constructed the first electron microscope at the University of Zurich. In 1966, he followed a call to Bern in order to take up the position of director of the Institute for Anatomy there at the age of 37. No easy task, since it was a large institute which nonetheless had no infrastructure for modern research. Weibel's extensive development plans were approved by local government, and he was able to modernise the institute.

"Lungs in the heart" 

Across the decades, his research interest focused in particular on one organ: "I had the lungs in my heart," says Weibel. He was particularly interested in gas exchange and the diffusion capacity, so the maximum ability of human and animal lungs to absorb oxygen, and how this is affected by the structure. In order to determine this with different capacities, he started a project in Kenya, together with a physiologist from Harvard University, in which wild animals were trapped and their lungs and muscles were studied while running on a treadmill.

Die Forschenden der Universitäten Bern und Harvard 1977 im Feld in Kenia. © Ewald Weibel
The researchers from the Universities of Bern and Harvard in 1977 in the field in Kenya. © Ewald Weibel

They were thus able to demonstrate, using 27 animals weighing between half a kilo and 250 kilos, that the ability of the lungs to absorb oxygen increases when the muscle cells need more oxygen while working. This resulted in the theory of symmorphosis, which says that human and animal bodies only "build" as much structure as they need for a function.

"Retain independent thinking!"

Alongside his scientific activities, Weibel was also active on a variety of committees, several times as their president, and acted as the rector of the University of Bern in 1984-85. As such, he was committed to bringing science down from the ivory tower and into society, to which end he founded the academic commission, which became the University and Society Forum in 2002, in collaboration with the university establishment in 1986. When asked what advice he would give to young researchers today, Weibel says: "It takes great effort to retain independent thinking in such a rigidly structured teaching system." He recommends seeing that medicine is a service, but also a science which can improve this service. For discoveries, it is important to recognise weaknesses in the existing system and hang onto them – this can result in great successes: "Retain independent thinking!"

About the person

Born 1929
1955 Doctoral studies at the University of Zurich
1958-1959 Research Fellow at Yale University (USA)
1959-1962 Research Associate at Columbia University and Rockefeller University (USA)
1963-1966 Assistant professor at the University of Zurich
1966-1994 Professor and director at the Institute for Anatomy, University of Bern
1994 Emeritus professor
1984-1985 Rector of the University of Bern
Academic roles including President of the International Union of Physiological Sciences, the International Society for Stereology, the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences (SAMW), Vice-president of the Marcel Benoist Prize Foundation, council member of the Royal Microscopical Society, London and the European Cell Biology Organisation. Honoured, among others, with the Marcel Benoist Prize, an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Geneva, and honorary membership in a variety of international and national medical societies.
Ongoing research projects on the connection between structure and function in the lungs.

The Forum for University and Society (FUG)

The Forum for University and Society (FUG) was founded by Ewald Weibel in 1987 – then under the name of the "academic commission" – and is a network of scientific and practical representatives. Its members, from various departments of the university as well as from politics, economics and culture reflect the bridging function between the university and society. The forum combines expertise by bringing together, clarifying and evaluating current knowledge at events. Topics are commented on and expanded on in cross-sectoral discussion and publications with the aim of making expert knowledge fruitful for the public.

About the author

Nathalie Matter is a PR/Media editor in Corporate Communication.