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He enrolled at Lund University in 1812 where he studied medicine, and alternated with studies in Copenhagen, until he in 1818 became a licensed doctor of medicine. Through his friendship with Jöns Jakob Berzelius, he as early as 1824 was appointed temporary professor of anatomy at the Karolinska Institute, an institute to which he dedicated much of his strength for many years. In 1830 he was also appointed temporary supervisor there, and in 1840 he was appointed both permanent professor and supervisor.
During the next decades he made many anatomical discoveries, for instance about the finer parts of the teeth, of the skull, of the muscles and of the nervous system. He was also an anthropologist, whose studies of the human cranium led to the classifications dolichocephalic and brachycephalic. He was considered to be very knowledgeable and was elected into many of the scientific academies at the time. He is credited with defining the cephalic index, which is the ratio of width to length of one's head.
The retropubic space of Retzius is named after him. The peritoneum lies deep to the posterior layer of transversalis fascia and is very adherent to it. Distally, this close contact remains in the area lateral to the epigastrics. Medially, however, the peritoneum reflects on the roof of the bladder and runs sharply dorsally, away from the deep layer of transversalis fascia. The separation of transversalis fascia and peritoneum contains loose fatty tissue allowing for the filling of the bladder. This space is called the retropubic space of Retzius (from the Clinic of Digestive Surgery, University Hospital St-Pierre, Brussels).
Retzius also engaged himself in the battle against the Swedish drinking habits – which at this time had a significant impact on the Swedish society – with works on the harmful effects liquor has on the body.
In 1826, he was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
He was the father of Gustaf Retzius.
- Peter Rowley-Conwy, From Genesis to Prehistory: The Archaeological Three Age System and its Contested Reception in Denmark, Britain, and Ireland, 2007, p. 120
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