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M. Hans Elias 1907т 1985

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M. Hans Elias 1907-1985
This issue of The American Journal of Anatomy is
dedicated to the memory of a remarkable man: a talented painter and sculptor; a n innovative cinematographer; a n outstanding comparative histologist; the author
of more than 250 scientific papers, reviews, chapters,
monographs, and books; a great teacher; and a warm,
personal friend to his students and colleagues.
Hans Elias was born in Darmstadt, Germany, on June
28, 1907, the son of Michael EIias, the Headmaster of
the Paedagogium Preparatory School. He did his undergraduate work a t the Humanistisches Gymnasium,
Realgymnasium, Adolf Beyer School of Fine Arts in
Darmstadt and received his Maturity (Abiturium) from
the Realgymnasium in 1926. His major interest was art,
but the school he wanted to attend was full the year he
graduated from the Realgymnasium, so while waiting
for a n opening, he took some classes in biology and
mathematics and soon discovered his real vocation. He
pursued graduate studies a t the Technische Hochschule
of Darmstadt and at the Universities of Berlin and Giessen, majoring in biology and mathematics and minoring
in physics and education. His doctoral dissertation entitled “Die Entwicklung des Farbkleides des Wasserfrosches (Rana esculenta)” was done under the
supervision of Professor W.J. Schmidt, and he received
his Ph.D. in biology from the University of Giessen in
1931. The same year he was certified as a Teacher for
Superior Schools by the Technische Hochschule of
Darmstadt. For the next 3 years he was a teacher in
secondary schools and a school for the deaf in Germany
while at the same time continuing research in his private laboratory.
In 1935 Dr. Elias moved to Switzerland where he
worked at the Federal Polytechnicum in Ziirich under
Professor Ernest Rust and at the University of Ziirich
under Professor W. von MoellendorfT. The following year
he did research at the University of Padua with Professor Tullio Terni and for the next 2 years was consultant
to the International Institute for Educative Cinematography of the League of Nations in Rome, Italy. For a
year he was in charge of the histological and scientific
cinematographic laboratories of the Italian Research
Council, and his last months in Europe were spent in
the Biological Laboratory of the Athenaeum Pontificium
Accepted for publication May 15,1987.
Lateranense in the Vatican State under Dr. Giuseppe
Reverberi. He had left Germany because of the Nazis
and then found it necessary to flee Italy because of the
Fascists. He and his wife sought refuge in the United
States, where they later became naturalized citizens.
At the invitation of Dr. Frederick T. Lewis he worked
in the Harvard Biological Laboratories, and for the next
6 years he was a Professor of Histology at the Middlesex
School of Veterinary Medicine. It was a t Middlesex that
he seriously pursued his interests in comparative
In 1945 Hans Elias was hired as a Medical Film Producer by the Communicable Disease Center of the U S .
Public Health Service in Atlanta, Georgia. His assignment was to make a film on schistosomiasis, and in the
process he studied the parasites in the liver. His keen
powers of observation and background in mathematics
immediately made him question the classical description of “liver cords,” and he suggested to his supervisor
that a n appropriate study be conducted. His request was
denied; so he bought a n ancient microtome, borrowed a
microscope, and set up a laboratory in his basement. His
first publication in this area was a n abstract in the
Anatomical Record in 1948 entitled “DO Liver Cords
Exist?”; this was followed by four papers published in
1949: “Beobachtungen uber den Bauder Saugerleber”
(Anat. Nachr., 19-191, “A Re-examination of the Structure of the Mammalian Liver. I. Parenchymal Architecture” (Am. J. Anat., 84:311-3331, “A Re-examination of
the Structure of the Mammalian Liver. II. The Hepatic
Lobule and its Relation to the Vascular and Biliary
Systems” (Am. J. Anat., 85:379-456), and the now-classic “The Liver Cord Concept After 100 Years” (Science,
110:470-472). The papers made him famous, but they
got him fired!
The work on the liver had been noticed by Dr. Hans
Popper, Head of the Department of Pathology at Cook
County Hospital and Director of the Hektcen Institute
for Medical Research in Chicago. He encouraged Dr.
John J. Sheinin, President of the Chicago Medical
School, to hire Dr. Elias, who became a n Assistant Professor of Microscopic Anatomy at that institution in
1949. He was promoted to Associate Professor of Anatomy in 1953 and Professor in 1960. While serving on the
faculty of the Chicago Medical School, Dr. Elias published many papers on cytology; histogenesis; human
and comparative microscopic anatomy; methods of scientific cinematography; and the three-dimensional architecture of the liver, adrenal cortex, and kidney. He
described the detailed gross anatomy of the blood vessels
and ducts in the human liver, and with Hans Popper,
the vascular pattern in the cirrhotic liver of man. He
was the first to demonstrate the dependence of the liver’s lobular architecture on portohepatic blood-pressure
Much of his early research on the liver was accomplished by making three-dimensional reconstructions
with glass plates. This was tedious and time-consuming
work, and he wondered if techniques could be devised to
determine three-dimensional structure from the study
of two-dimensional images. He reasoned that it might
be possible to employ techniques of morphometry and
stereometry to derive by the criteria of geometric probability, three-dimensional interpretations of flat images,
such as those seen with the light and electron micro-
scopes. Thus, he defined stereology as extrapolation from
two- to three-dimensional space. His first studies were
done by embedding noodles of many shapes and sizes in
gelatin to which had been added india ink. He sliced the
gelatin into thin slabs, carefully measured the length
and breadth of the exposed noodle sections, and derived
formulae that could be used to describe their threedimensional shapes. Before long he was applying these
same formulae to define more precisely the shapes of
mitochondria, the GoIgi apparatus, the endoplasmic reticulum, and other constituents of the cell. He published
his first paper on stereology, entitled “A Mathematical
Approach to Microscopic Anatomy” in the Chicago Medical School Quarterly (12:98-103, 1951), and it was followed by many more contributions in this area over the
next 30 years. He was the founder and first president of
the International Society for Stereology and later was
named Honorary President for life.
Hans Elias was a n extremely energetic man. He
worked hard at everything he did, whether it was scientific research, painting or sculpturing, teaching, or
providing service to his profession and community. He
always had multiple projects going simultaneously. His
office was cluttered with books, papers, sketches, student papers, half-finished manuscripts, boxes of microscopic slides, and a host of other things. The clutter
never seemed to bother him; instead, he would focus his
attention on one beautiful thing and completely ignore
the rest. In the tiny office he had a t the Chicago Medical
School when it was located at 710 South Walcott Avenue
in Chicago, there was one desk, two chairs, some cabinets and a sink. The desk was shared with colleagues
and assistants, and it was used for writing, microtomy,
microscopy, photography, art work, and lunch! There
was one large window that probably had not been
washed on the outside since the day it was installed.
The view was ghastly; it looked down on a small courtyard that was used to store old racks of animal cages,
crates, and materials that eventually were hauled away.
The office also was used as a dark room, so Hans had
special black shades installed to make the window lighttight. The black shade did little for the decor, so he
decided to improve it. He bought a large piece of canvas
that was nailed to the window frame, and on it he
painted a beautiful picture. Regardless of how messy the
office might be on a particular day, he could always lean
back in his chair, focus his attention on the picture, and
marvel a t the beauty of nature. It was difficult to do
photography in the office because so much light leaked
under the door. He stuffed paper towels in the cracks
when the enlarger was used or photomicrographs were
Hans Elias spent long hours in his laboratory and
office a t the Chicago Medical School and many more at
his desk in the living room of his home. He enjoyed
working at home in the evenings and on weekends surrounded by his family. When he needed a break, he
would work on a drawing, painting or sculpture for an
hour and then return to the task a t hand. He took time
to plant flowers and young trees and often would sketch
details of a new leaf or flower so he could share its
beauty with his co-workers a t school. He never lost interest in his art. Most of his colleagues are familiar with
the many drawings and paintings he produced for scientific papers, books, and pharmaceutical companies,
M. HANS ELIAS 1907-1985
but he also painted portraits of his friends and beautiful
landscapes. His home was filled with art, and some of
his work eventually found its proper place in museums
and public buildings.
Dr. Elias was very interested in minority and disadvantaged students. If given a choice, he always would
hire a black technician or spend a little extra time with
a black student. He had worked very hard under very
trying conditions to achieve what he had, and he had a
keen appreciation for others who had to struggle for
He was always the teacher, and he enjoyed sharing
his knowledge with anyone who would listen. He would
take time from his busy schedule to teach a child to
draw, explain complex features of anatomy to a medical
student, or lecture to a group of senior citizens interested in science. He made his technicians and research
assistants feel that they were important parts of his
team and often included them as co-authors of his work.
He found great joy in helping others appreciate the
beauty and complexity of nature. He always encouraged
his students to draw what they saw under the microscope. He knew the exercise sharpened their powers of
observation and helped them retain the information.
When students would complain that they were unable
to draw a straight line, he would patiently sit down and
give them a lesson in art. He produced sketches on the
backs of index cards and envelopes, as well as on drawing boards, sketch pads, and canvas.
Hans Elias became Professor Emeritus in 1972, but
that did not stop his work or productivity. He and his
wife moved to San Francisco to be closer to their sons
and bought a home overlooking the bay. He converted
the lower part of his house into a laboratory, dark room,
and studio and kept on working. He served as a Visiting
Professor of Anatomy at the University of Heidelberg in
Germany from 1973 to 1975, and upon his return to San
Francisco he became a Research Stereologist a t the University of California Medical Center at San Francisco
and a Lecturer of Anatomy at the City College of San
Francisco, where he taught undergraduate students in
the evening almost to the time of his death.
Although Dr. Elias received many awards throughout
his life, he paid little attention to them. His beautiful
scientific exhibits won Certificates of Merit from the
American Medical Association in 1953, 1958, and 1959.
He won second prize for medical illustrations at the
International Congress of Medicine in Verona, Italy, in
1955; a Certificate of Excellence from the Chicago Medical Society in 1956; and the Gold Award in film competition from the British Medical Association in 1968. He
was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Hans Elias was a talented and productive man. His
death on April 11, 1985, ended a remarkable career
filled with countless accomplishments.
Those of us who had the privilege of working with
Hans Elias miss him very much. Our lives are richer for
having known him.
John E. Pauly
Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Sponsored
Research, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences,
Little Rock, AR 72205
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