Wolff, Caspar Friedrich

Wolff, Caspar Friedrich

Wolff, Caspar Friedrich (käsˈpär frēˈdrĭkh vôlf), 1733–94, German biologist, a founder of observational embryology. In his Theoria generationis (1759) he reintroduced the theory of epigenesis to replace the then current theory of preformation, directing attention to the evidence of comparative development in plants and animals. He spent many years of research at the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Wolff, Caspar Friedrich


Born Jan. 18, 1734, in Berlin; died Feb. 22, 1794, in St. Petersburg. Naturalist and one of the originators of the theory of individual development of organisms.

Wolff was educated in Berlin (1753-55) and Halle (1755-59). In 1759 he published his dissertation, Theory of Conception, in which he criticized the idea of preformation on the basis of his study of chick development and plant growth and substantiated epigenesis. Studying the “history of a flower” in legumes, Wolff traced the formation of all its parts and found that they are modified leaves. Thus, Wolff anticipated the theory of metamorphosis formulated in 1790 by J. W. Goethe. In 1766, Wolff accepted an invitation of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences and left Germany in 1768. In the same year he presented his work On the Development of the Intestines in Chicks, in which he conclusively established the principle of embryonic development of organs from leaflike layers, thereby providing the foundation for the theory of germ layers. Other studies by Wolff included investigations of the anatomy of the heart muscles and cellular tissue. In Russia, Wolff concentrated on the structure of freaks, a collection of which existed in the Anatomical Office of the Kunstkamera, which he directed, and he began work on an article about the theory of freaks. However, his sudden death prevented him from carrying out his plans.

Evaluating Wolffs works, Engels wrote, “C. F. Wolff in 1759 made the first attack on the theory of the constancy of species, thereby heralding the theory of evolution” (Dialektika prirody, 1969, pp. 14-15).


“De formatione intestinorum observationes in ovis incubatis institutae.” Novi commentarii Academiae imp. scientiarum Petropolitanae, 1768-69, vols. 12, 13.
“Von der eigentiimlichen und wesentlichen Kraft.” In Zwei
Abhandlungen uber die Nutritionskraft. St. Petersburg, 1789. In Russian translation: Teoriia zarozhdeniia. Moscow, 1950.


Bliakher, L. la. Istoriia embriologii v Rossii (S serediny XVIII do serediny XIX v.). Moscow, 1955.
Gaisinovich, A. E. K. F. Vol’f i uchenie o razvitii organizmov (V sviazi s obshchei evoliutsiei nauchnogo mirovozzreniia). Moscow, 1961.
Uschmann, G. Caspar Friedrich Wolff: Ein Pionier der modernen Embryologie. Jena, 1955.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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