Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Ignaz Troxler (1780–1866): Swiss polymath, physician, philosopher, pedagogue and politician

Jonathan Davidson
Durham, North Carolina, United States


Ignaz PV Troxler, 1830. Via Wikimedia.

Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler (1780–1866) was an influential figure in Swiss medicine, philosophy, education, and politics, yet is scarcely mentioned in the English-speaking world. Even in Switzerland, this controversial and outspoken individual remains neglected.


Brief Biographical Sketch and Events in Troxler’s Life1

Troxler was born in Beromünster in the Swiss canton of Lucerne, the eldest child of Leopold and Katherine Troxler. Troxler’s father was a tailor and cloth merchant who died of pneumonia when Ignaz was only six years old. Ignaz received his education locally and at age eighteen accepted a position as secretary to the governor of his canton during the short-lived Napoleonic Helvetic Republic. In 1798, disenchanted with what he saw during this first appointment in the political world, yet still fired by idealism, Troxler entered the University of Jena to study medicine and philosophy, where he remained until 1804. Between 1803 and 1807, Troxler published papers in the Ophthalmological Library. Conflict with the cantonal medical council threatened him with arrest, which he avoided by fleeing to Vienna in 1805. He remained there from 1806–1809, practicing medicine and receiving further training in both medicine and philosophy, as well as forging a friendship with Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827).

He married Wilhelmina Polborn (?–1859) in 1809 and the couple returned to Switzerland, where he was arrested briefly, but apologized to the authorities. The Troxlers were married for fifty years and had nine children, four of whom died young. Ignaz practiced medicine in Beromünster until 1814. In that same year, he issued pamphlets protesting a coup d’état in Lucerne and was arrested then released. He attended the 1815 Congress of Vienna as a private citizen to shape the future Swiss political landscape. After a brief stay in Vienna, the family returned to Switzerland.

Partly because he lost many of his children, Troxler cut back his medical practice. (Despite this, he was sought out for medical opinions until well into his retirement, including by the famous educator Johann Pestalozzi in 1837.) Between 1819 and1821, he served on the philosophy faculty at the Lucerne Lyceum, and from 1823 to 1830 he taught philosophy at the Aarau Lehrverein training school. He was appointed to the chair of philosophy at the University of Basel in 1830 and rector of the university one year later. However, he was expelled from the town that same year for sympathy with the rural democracy movement. He returned to Aarau and in 1832 was elected to the cantonal Grand Council. Between 1834 and 1853, Troxler was professor of philosophy at the University of Bern. In 1848 he proposed his final ideas for the federal constitution.

In 1853, Troxler retired to his estate in Aarau. His wife died in 1859, and Ignaz died on March 6, 1866.


Troxler the Physician1

After brief service in the short-lived Helvetic Republic, Troxler was a medical student for four years at the University of Jena. He completed his studies with a dissertation on ophthalmology under the supervision of Karl Himly (1772–1837), whom he followed to Göttingen for another year. He then underwent further training in general practice in Vienna with Johann Malfatti (1775–1854). Malfatti introduced Troxler to Ludwig van Beethoven and the two men became friends. Troxler in turn introduced Beethoven to Muzio Clementi (1752–1832), who in 1807 was to become publisher of Beethoven’s works. Troxler also at times proffered medical advice to his friend.

Troxler became well known in central European medicine. He published prolifically, founded and co-edited a medical journal, and took a critical stance towards many of the values and practices of the time, which repeatedly brought him into conflict with the authorities.

Medical publications, pamphlets, and press articles included the following topics: cretinism, ophthalmology, anthrax, use of sulfur for chronic breast disease, use of lead, hydrophobia, treatment and teaching of the deaf and dumb, quackery, medical practice, public health and health policy in the cantons, the need for a central national licensing authority for medical practice, and establishment of a federal medical library.

He was one of the earliest to study and publish on cretinism, which he saw as a form of endemic degeneration long before it came to be understood as a thyroid-related disorder, a notion that did not appear until many decades later.2 Thus, although his conception of cretinism bears little resemblance to current formulations, his early work stimulated interest by others in the group of disorders characterized by neurodevelopmental, intellectual, or physical disabilities.

Troxler’s early publications concerned ophthalmology, and it is for this work he is best known today. His name lives on eponymously in the “Troxler effect” or “Troxler fading.” In a seminal paper,3 Troxler described the rapid fading of an image that is stabilized at an eccentric retinal location when microsaccadic eye movements are suppressed, i.e., when gaze is fixated, the peripheral image fades and rapidly reappears when the gaze fixation position changes. One suggested mechanism is that this fading represents a form of post-receptor neuronal adaptation, and that perception is a dynamic event whereby things in our surroundings need to change for them to be noticed.4 It is the view of one expert5 that Troxler’s discovery attests to his “solid clinical and physiological methodology and is evidence of extraordinary quality of observation and interpretation.”


Troxler the Philosopher1

Troxler was interested in philosophy from an early age. As a boy, he “demonstrated his extraordinary ability to think, combined with the broadest interest in the world of the sensual and supernatural…and an equally extraordinary linguistic fluency and quick-wittedness.”1 At age nineteen, he enrolled in the philosophy course at Jena concurrent with his medical studies. He was taught by Friedrich Schelling (1775–1854), whom Troxler admired greatly, as well as by Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), a founder of the German idealist school of philosophy, Naturphilosophie.

In his late twenties, Troxler published three books: On Life and Its Problems, Elements of Biosophy, and Glimpses into the Essence of Man, in which Troxler explored issues of consciousness, perception, the self, body-mind relationships, the individual, and the spiritual essence of humanity. His later work described a vision for the development of a supersensible form of cognition to directly perceive the formative forces that lie behind the curtain of everyday perception. He saw this new capacity as offering potential for a new cultural impulse, but he also realized that such a vision was premature and unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future. The name by which Troxler most often characterized his new philosophy was anthroposophy (“wisdom of man”). Troxler was the first to emphasize this term, although it has since been appropriated by Rudolf Steiner, whose work might arguably be seen as partial fulfillment of what Troxler had begun.5 Two books from this later period were published: Lectures on Philosophy and German Theology. Troxler posited a fourfold structure of the human with two polarities, which he called the tetraktys: the living body in contrast to the soul, and the “dead” body as in anatomical dissection, contrasted against the spirit. All four were united by the “Gemuet” or core personality, which brought the personality to a higher spiritual level and opened the human mind to the divine light.6 In this respect Troxler’s view was similar to that of Carl Jung, another Swiss physician-philosopher, who also studied at the University of Basel fifty years later, although the latter does not appear to have acknowledged any influence by the former. By embracing divinity and spirituality, Troxler’s philosophy was at variance with the increasingly prevalent agnostic trends of nineteenth-century philosophy, and he became marginalized in European philosophy. It did not help that he continued to be embroiled in political controversies.

Troxler had an academic platform to pursue his career in philosophy at the Lucerne Lyceum, at the Aarau Lehrverein, as departmental chair and rector of the University of Basel, again in Aarau, and lastly at the University of Bern, where he remained from 1834–1853. However, his output declined in later years and he became an isolated figure. Nevertheless, Immanuel Fichte (1796–1879),1 the philosopher-son of Troxler’s teacher, said in an 1862 letter to Troxler: “You are one of our most profound minds and the only original thinker Switzerland now has to offer.”


Troxler the Pedagogue1

While Troxler had always been committed to education as a cause, it was not until later in life that he pursued pedagogy as a career. Troxler had no formal training as a teacher but his innate talent in this respect was recognized. Max Widmer1 remarked on the “magic” effect Troxler had on his pupils. For Troxler, education was an activity designed to arouse free and independent thinking, not just knowledge alone. It was important for him to link the subject matter of his courses with political messages, albeit without favoring one or other point of view. He campaigned tirelessly until his old age to fight for the educational policies that he believed in.

His first appointment at the Lucerne Lyceum in 1819 was short-lived because of his political activities, as well as the envy of his colleagues at his charisma and the success of his students. He then moved to Aarau, where he lived from 1823–1830, teaching at the Aarau Lehrverein. Under his direction, the institute expanded and provided an important impetus in reorganizing the Swiss higher education system. The school shaped a generation of civil servants in the Aargau canton, many of whom had a hand in drafting the 1848 Swiss federal state.

In 1830 he accepted a position at the University of Basel, but this again was short-lived. He then returned to Aarau for three years before taking up his final appointment in Bern.


Troxler the Politician1

From a young age, Troxler confessed to be a true patriot of the Swiss fatherland. At first, his main efforts to promote social reform expressed themselves in his critical stance to medical practice and against a coup d’état that occurred in 1814. He was twice imprisoned and tried, but each time was acquitted. Later he espoused the causes of rural and oppressed Swiss who were deprived of their rights by the aristocracy. He fought against the clerical governance of the Lucerne grammar school and the powerful and privileged defenders of established values. One mouthpiece through which Troxler expressed his political views was the journal Schweizerisches Museum, which he co-founded in 1816.

It is for his work in forming the Swiss constitution that Troxler is best known. Widmer1 acknowledges that many people contributed to the new constitution, but that Troxler was unique in having a clear vision of a humane and sustainable democratic state and the willingness to endure “prison, contempt, persecution, slander, death threats” to achieve this goal. He attended the 1815 Congress of Vienna as a private citizen, advocating his vision of a federal state modeled in many ways on the US Constitution, and again while on the Grand Council of the Aargau Canton in an 1833 draft report supporting a confederation. Lastly, in 1848, Troxler’s report7 entitled “The Constitution of the United States of North America as a Model of Swiss Federal Reform” is believed to have entered into deliberations of the relevant committee by one of his former students. The bi-cameral federal state structure, for which he had advocated so passionately, came to into existence in 1848. Troxler had devoted over thirty years of his life to the achievement of this goal. To many, he is regarded as the architect of the modern Swiss state, and perhaps this is his greatest honor. However, other achievements are to be found aplenty, even though they have remained overlooked.



  1. Ignaz P.V. Troxler (1780-1866). P. V. Troxler-Verein. Accessed August 12, 2023 at troxlergedenkjahr2016.ch.
  2. Schlich T. “Changing disease identities: cretinism, politics and society (1844-1892).” Medical History 1994;38:421-48.
  3. Troxler IPV. (German) “On the disappearance of given objects within our sphere of vision. In Ophthalmological Library, ed. K. Himly and A. Schmidt. II;2:1-53. Jena 1804.
  4. Déruaz A, Matter M, Whatham SR, Goldschmidt M, Duret F, Issenhuth M, Safran AB. “Can fixation instability improve text perception during eccentric fixation in patients with central scotomas?” British Journal of Ophthalmology 2004;88:461-3.
  5. Iselin H-U. Troxlerforum. Accessed August 13, 2023. https://www.academia.edu/39477504/Troxlerforum_Archive.
  1. Weckowitz TE and H. Liebel-Weckowitz. A History of Great Ideas in Abnormal Psychology. Amsterdam: Elsevier-Science North-Holland; 1990, p. 136.
  2. Troxler IPV. (German) “The Constitution of the United States of North America as a Model of Swiss Federal Reform.” Schaffhausen, 1848.



DR. JONATHAN DAVIDSON trained at University College Hospital, London, and practiced psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. He has published extensively in the areas of post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, resilience, psychopharmacology, complementary and alternative medicine, and medical history and biography. 


Summer 2023  |  Sections  |  Physicians of Note

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