Genesis of apoptosis

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.309.6953.542b (Published 20 August 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:542
  1. S Fletcher
  1. Al Zahra Hospital, PO Box 3499, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.

    EDITOR, - H Konrad Muller's preoccupation with historical accuracy in his letter on apoptotic priorities1 would be served better by studying an earlier period.

    Robert Schroder described the phenomenon in 1914 in a paper on menstruation2 regularly cited in earlier monographs on gynaecological pathology3 for its originality, merit, and acclaimed diagnostic value. With exemplary deduction he described the presence, significance, and immense predictive power of the minute particles of pyknotic chromatin which appear in the subnuclear zone of the endometrial glands in the two or three days before menstruation.

    Although well aware that the chromatin granules were products of individual cell death (Kernzerfallsfigurin), Schroder wisely named them without any hint of functional speculation or interpretation. His very simple descriptive term, Pyknosen, describes vividly and unerringly exactly what is seen - pyknotic bodies.

    Schroder's illustration, made without the benefit of photomicrography, is executed to perfection in pen and ink, aided only by a drawing prism. Instantly recognisable, it leaves no doubt that the Pyknosen are identical to the apoptotic bodies subsequently published without reference to his original description.4 He enjoyed the obvious antithesis and, with less contrivance than his successors, wrote, “Die Erscheinung der Pyknose steht in einem direkten Gegensatz zur Mitose.”

    In airing Schroder's work I am completely convinced that neither Kerr, Currie, Wyllie, Hopwood, nor Levison had any knowledge of it at the time their early papers were published. It has also escaped Muller's historical researches.

    Independent and unwitting rediscovery is quite common: its benefits include fresh minds, new points of view, confirmation by repetition, and, often, greatly advanced techniques. It is not an occasion for shame. The contributions of the Australian and Scottish schools to the understanding of cell death have been imaginative, enthusiastic, and manifold. Schroder would reel in amazement at what they have uncovered; yet, perhaps felicitously, he has eliminated both schools from the claim to priority.

    Muller would do well to study Schroder's paper, retrieve its incomplete reference,5 and perhaps reconsider his own views. Instead of inciting destructive rivalry, his historical inclinations might be employed more benevolently to promote a Robert Schroder Memorial Lecture at the next major meeting on cell death. In suitable hands, the story of Schroder's simple, useful, outstandingly reliable observation might enrich, inspire, and even graciously redress, a debt long overdue.


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