Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Founding fathers

The cell was defined 150 years ago

Anthony Hyman and Kai Simons recount how E. B. Wilson described a cell in 1896 as “the basis of the life of all organisms” (Nature 480, 34; 2011). But it was an almost-forgotten German biologist, Max Schultze, who 150 years ago laid an earlier foundation stone for cell biology by defining the cell in terms of what it contained rather than its boundary.

In an 1861 article, 'On muscle-particles and what we should call a cell' (Archiv für Anatomie, Physiologie und wissenschaftliche Medicin 1–27; 1861), Schultze rejects the definition of a cell put forward by Robert Hooke almost two centuries earlier.

On the basis of microscopic observations of sections of cork, Hooke in 1665 had introduced the term cell, after the Latin cella, for 'little room with a rigid wall'. Schultze argued that the existence of an enveloping wall, as found in plants, is not an essential criterion for defining a cell.

Schultze based his conclusion on his comparative studies of protoplasmic material from animal muscle tissue and from protozoans. From his observations of these soft, flexible, living systems, Schultze redefined the cell as a “naked speck of protoplasm with a nucleus” (see A. Reynolds J. Hist. Biol. 41, 307–337; 2008).

It could be argued that this more accurate protoplasm–nucleus description of the cell marked the origin of cell biology as a new scientific discipline, encompassing cells as evolving units of all extant and extinct forms of life.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to U. Kutschera.

Additional information

CONTRIBUTIONS Readers are welcome to comment online:

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Kutschera, U. The cell was defined 150 years ago. Nature 480, 457 (2011).

Download citation


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing