Wilhelm Heinrich Erb (1840-1921) was a key-figure in the development of the German neurological school, as well as Charcot in France and Gowers in England. He studied medicine in Heidelberg, Erlangen and Munich, being an assistant to Ludwig von Buhl (1816-1880) and to Nikolaus Friedreich (1825-1882). Erb received his medical degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1864. In 1880 Erb was appointed to a chair in pathology at the University of Leipzig and, then, returned to Heidelberg, assuming the same positions there. He remained in Heidelberg, succeeding his teacher Friedreich in 1883.
His fields of interest were initially histology and toxicology and then he focused mainly on neurology. In particular, he analysed the effect of electricity on human organism, popularizing electrodiagnostic testing and the use of reflex hammer in neurological examinations. Clinically, he demonstrated the increase of irritability in motor nerve in tetanus infection (Erb’s phenomenon) and conducted studies on poliomyelitis, brain tumours and progressive muscular atrophy. Erb evidenced some histo-pathological associations between syphilis and tabes dorsalis (nerve cell degeneration). In 1878, he described myasthenia gravis, which, for this reason, is sometimes referred to as the “Erb-Goldflam disease”.
Erb contributed to other medical fields, such as cardiology, conducting studies on claudicatio intermittens and describing the Erb’s point, used in auscultatory semiotics (not to be confused with Erb’s point in neurology). He was the author of over 250 medical works, including Handbuch der Elektrotherapie (a textbook on Electrotherapy), and an important study on spinal paralysis.
In addition to “Erb-Goldflam disease“, the name of this German pathologist is today associated to numerous neurological eponyms, including: