Who was Johann Peter Frank, and what did he contribute to medicine and public health?

Expert Answers
Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Johann Peter Frank (1745-1821) was a German physician who published a seminal treatise on public health issues that led to the development of public health and social medicine. His work, System einer vollständigen medicinischen Polizey (A complete system of medical police) was written over Frank's lifetime and published in multiple volumes beginning in 1779 and ending more than thirty-seven years later [because of the nature of publishing in volumes, some sources like JAMA cite six volumes (last, 1819) while others like Encyclopædia Britannica cite nine volumes with three published posthumously (last, 1827)]. JAMA cites the first three volumes being published simultaneously in 1779, the fourth published in 1788, the fifth in 1812 and the sixth in 1819. Frank's System radically altered how health in the public sector was thought of and approached. Encyclopædia Britannica defines public health this way:

the art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting physical and mental health, sanitation, personal hygiene, control of infection, and organization of health services. From the normal human interactions involved in dealing with the many problems of social life, there has emerged a recognition of the importance of community action in the promotion of health and the prevention and treatment of disease; this is expressed in the concept of public health. (John H. Bryant, M.D., Encyclopædia Britannica)

Frank's System was the first thorough work dealing with public hygiene, health and problems, including principles, practices, and laws regarding conduct that affected people's health. Frank ended his career in Vienna in general practice, which he continued until his death in 1821. He began his career as a medical student at Heidelberg, then Strasburg (moving to Strasburg due to a disagreement with the Dean), earning his medical doctorate in 1766. After procuring further credentials to enable him to practice and teach in France, Frank opened a practice in Baden, Germany, and began writing System, a subject that interested him since student days. His first efforts at publishing were ineffective resulting in his throwing the first manuscript of System on the fire. In 1773, Prince-Bishop of Speyer undertook to give Frank his patronage along with a strong recommendation to a publisher. Frank rewrote the destroyed manuscript and three volumes were published by Schwan of Mannhein. Despite Bishop Speyer's patronage, the Church did not receive the publication favorably because Frank was not supportive of the practice of celibacy advocated and practiced by Church clergy. Nevertheless, Frank went on to successfully publish the remaining volumes of his treatise while he advanced in a prestigious career with professorships at Göttingen, Pavia, Vienna and St Petersburg and several years spent as personal physician to Czar Alexander I. Later in his career, he declined an invitation to act as Napoleon's personal physician preferring retirement in retiring to Freiburg with a pension in 1808 followed by his final practice in Vienna in 1811.

System covered a thorough and complex compilation of all aspects of health issues and regulations, which led to revitalizing how universities taught and hospitals practiced medicine as well as to individual discoveries relating to puerperal sepsis in childbirth and the distinction, made through Frank's observations, between diabetes mellitus and diabetes insipidus. Frank's System drew attention to the State responsibility for regulating, overseeing and maintaining--or policeing--public health issues and problems.

He was among the first to urge international regulation of health problems, and he endorsed the notion of “medical police,” whereby one of the duties of the state was to protect the health of its citizens. (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica)

Some aspects of public health that Frank wrote about are public sanitation, water supply and water supply issues, school health, sexual hygiene, maternal and child welfare, midwifery, food safety, conduct of teachers, regulations on prostitution, and, importantly, keeping accurate statistical records in hospitals. The Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweiss (1818-1865) employed Frank's admonitions on keeping statistical records in hospitals to demonstrate the relationship of puerperal sepsis to a lack of adequate personal hygiene among midwives. Semmelweiss' statistical proof of this connection was of personal importance to Frank because his wife had died of puerperal sepsis in childbirth (the child died several months thereafter). Importantly for the epoch, Frank also connected poverty, hunger and overwork to disease.

Every social group has its own type of health and diseases, determined by mode of living. They are different for the courtiers and nobleman, for the soldiers and scholars. The artisans have various diseases peculiar to them, some of which have been specially investigated by physicians. The diseases caused by the poverty of the people and by lack of all the goods of life, however, are so exceedingly numerous that in a brief address they can be discussed only in outline. (Frank, "The People's Misery")


This image has been Flagged as inappropriate Click to unflag
Image (1 of 1)
trophyhunter1 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Johann Peter Frank (born in 1745 and died in 1821) was one of the first to recognize the need for the government to protect the health of the people and for there to be international regulation of health concerns. He was of great influence in the public health movement in the latter part of the 18th century. He earned a degree in medicine.  In his free time, he worked on a book about preventative medicine. Frank's work was on public health policy and dealt with sanitation, hygiene, food safety, child welfare and other public health issues. He revolutionized the teaching of medicine in several European universities and was a proponent of Jenner's vaccination discoveries. He traveled to various European countries and noted the conditions of laborers, hospitals, interviewed doctors and midwives and observed living conditions in each region. When he returned home, he reorganized the Board of Health, and wanted to raise the standard of medical care by reorganizing medical, surgical, and pharmaceutical education. Frank recognized a link between poverty and disease and realized until the standard of living improved for peasants, their health and welfare would not improve.

fashionableb1 | Student

Johann Peter Frank was a German Physician and Hygenist who was born in March 19, 1745 and died in April 24, 1821. During the plague outbreak in Europe due to the unsanitary behavior of the people, Frank pushed for the importance of public hygiene and government involvement in the public's health. His determination to make this happen later credited him as the founder of modern public health.