Finkelstein considers how someone so famous and so important could end up so forgotten, and he does a masterful job in rectifying that situation. The book traces du Bois-Reymond’s life and work, from a childhood in Berlin, to an early life and schooling in Bonn, and then back to Berlin and beyond in the course of a mature career in laboratories and lecture halls. We meet the scientist as teacher, as writer, and as public and university intellectual, and follow his transformation from Romantic to Lucretian and his dual existence as simultaneously staunch individual and product of his class and culture. The chapters are beautifully written, and range from exploring diary pages and love letters to laboratory equipment, with stopovers to consider frog pistols and hopping dances of joy along the way. Whether du Bois-Reymond was accepting the advice of his friends (as offered above) or avoiding his underwear-proffering mother-in-law (of which you’ll hear more in the conversation), he emerges here as not just an important historical figure, but also a fascinating person who’s a joy to read about.
Emil du Bois-Reymond is the most important forgotten intellectual of the nineteenth century. In his own time (1818–1896) du Bois-Reymond grew famous in his native Germany and beyond for his groundbreaking research in neuroscience and his provocative addresses on politics and culture. This biography by Gabriel Finkelstein draws on personal papers, published writings, and contemporary responses to tell the story of a major scientific figure. Du Bois-Reymond’s discovery of the electrical transmission of nerve signals, his innovations in laboratory instrumentation, and his reductionist methodology all helped lay the foundations of modern neuroscience.
In addition to describing the pioneering experiments that earned du Bois-Reymond a seat in the Prussian Academy of Sciences and a professorship at the University of Berlin, Finkelstein recounts du Bois-Reymond’s family origins, private life, public service, and lasting influence. Du Bois-Reymond’s public lectures made him a celebrity. In talks that touched on science, philosophy, history, and literature, he introduced Darwin to German students (triggering two days of debate in the Prussian parliament); asked, on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, whether France had forfeited its right to exist; and proclaimed the mystery of consciousness, heralding the age of doubt. The first modern biography of du Bois-Reymond in any language, this book recovers an important chapter in the history of science, the history of ideas, and the history of Germany.
The History of Modern Biomedicine Research Group at Queen Mary University of London, supported by the Wellcome Trust, has just made available online some of its material through the Medical Heritage Library. Among the items that can now be accessed online that may be of interest to AHP readers are a series of neuroscience history videos of oral history interviews with prominent neuroscientists, as well as the transcript of the Witness Seminar on the MRC Applied Psychology Unit at Cambridge (now the Cognitive and Brain Sciences Unit). The latter is one of a series of events where prominent figures and historians are invited to gather and discuss significant historical events and figures. The MRC Applied Psychology United Witness Seminar was held at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL, London, on 12 June 2001. The full collection of items from the History of Modern Biomedicine Research Group can be found online here.
An article in the January issue of the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences may be of interest to some AHP readers. In “Mysterious ‘Monsieur Leborgne': The Mystery of the Famous Patient in the History of Neuropsychology is Explained,” Domanski discusses the biographical lineage of arguably the most important patient in neuroscience history: the Frenchman “Monsieur Leborgne.” The patient’s identity had remained a mystery until this article. Full article details below:
As of spring 2011, 150 years have passed since the death of one of the most famous neurological patients of the nineteenth century. A Frenchman, “Monsieur Leborgne” also known by the nickname “Tan,” was hospitalized due to an almost complete loss of speech. His case was presented in 1861, during a seating of the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris by a physician, Pierre Paul Broca (1824-1880), who used this occasion to report that he had discovered, in the middle part of patient’s left frontal lobe, the cortical speech center. This area was later named “Broca’s area.” Both the patient and his medical records were the subject of numerous descriptions and citations in the medical literature. The patient’s full identity and social background has remained a mystery until now. This article presents biographical data concerning Leborgne and his family based on archive registers in France.
The just released February 2010 issue of the History of the Human Sciences is devoted to the “Neuroscience, Power, and Culture.” This special issue is an outgrowth of a workshop, “Our Brains, Our Selves?”, that was held at Harvard University in the spring of 2008. Speaking of the articles included in this issue, Guest Editor Scott Vrecko (left), asserts that,
a recognition of the socio-cultural embeddedness of neuroscience is only a starting point for analyses. From there, the investigations move on to demonstrate, through the use of a range of methods, case studies and analytic perspectives, the concrete ways that neuroscience and knowledge politics play out in specific spheres, and in relation to particular issues, understandings and social forms.
The first issue of the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences for 2010 has been released online. Included in this issue are three all new articles which address the Triune Brain in antiquity, the history of neuroscience research at MIT, and the discovery of reinforcing self-stimulation of the brain. Titles, authors and abstracts are listed below.
“The Triune Brain in Antiquity: Plato, Aristotle, Erasistratus” by C. U. M. (Chris) Smith, Vision Sciences, Aston University, Birmingham, UK. The abstract reads:
Tripartite neuropsychologies have featured through two and half millennia of Western thought. They received a modern airing in Paul MacLean’s well-known text The Triune Brain. This paper examines the origin of these triune psychophysiologies. It is argued that the first such psychophysiology was developed in the fifth century BCE in the Republic and its Pythagorean sequel, the Timaeus. Aristotle, Plato’s pupil and colleague, developed a somewhat similar theory, though this time based on his exhaustive biological researches. Finally, a generation later, Herophilus and Erasistratus at the Alexandrian Museum put together a more anatomically informed tripartite theory that, somewhat modified by Galen in the second century AD, remained the prevailing orthodoxy for nearly fifteen hundred years until it was overturned by the great figures of the Renaissance. Continue reading New Issue of JHN→
The history of cerebral localization is the focus of the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Neurosciences. An outgrowth of a World Federation of Neurology Research Group on the History of the Neurosciences Fall 2005 symposium, the issue explores the history of cerebral localization from antiquity up to the twentieth century.
Articles in this issue include:
“Cerebral Localization in Antiquity” by F. Clifford Rose
My York U. colleague Michael Pettit put me on to an item at the blog of the Medical Museion (U. Copenhagen) about home-made devices for the “sacrificing” of rats (and other small animals) that have completed their “service” as laboratory subjects, such as this improvised guillotine (left).
Most psychologists who have worked in an animal laboratory will be familiar with such objects, but they may come as a surprise to others, as they seemed to have been to the person who told the blogger about her discovery of one in a behavioral neuroscience lab in Sydney, Australia.
It is also worth checking out the comments on this posting, several of which are from people who have used machines such as this, and note that commercially produced versions have long been available as well.
Tilli Tansey and Les Iversen recently produced a podcast series on the history of neuroscience, supported by a grant from the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine. The first episode — “Today’s Neuroscience, Tomorrow’s History” — features Dr. Elizabeth Warrington, one of the pioneers of clinical and cognitive neuropsychology in the 1960s and 1970s. The interview is available, in multiple parts, as MP3 or as a written transcript. Videos have also been made available via YouTube.
Warrington was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1986. At the time, however, she was one of only a few women working in the field. Today, the Society for Neuroscience has a special committee devoted to pursuing remedies to address the challenges faced by those who choose to follow in the footsteps of such pioneers.
In a recent issue of History of Human Relations, 21(4), Simon Cohn (pictured left) explored the ways in which subjective experiences have been captured objectively through the use of brain-imaging techniques. In his examination, he discovered a potential problem.
Although hidden from final scientific accounts, at the centre of this [imaging] process is the need for the researchers to forge brief but intimate and personal relationships with the volunteers in their studies. With their increasing interest in studying more and more complex mental processes, and in particular as researchers focus on what they term ‘the social brain’, a potential paradox arises from the commitment to the straightforward location of brain function and recognition of the more distributed and intersubjective nature of the objects of their study. Consequently, in order to elicit specific mental activities, such as empathy, the scientists inevitably employ a range of socially based resources, which includes establishing a personal relationship with the volunteers. The scientists themselves see this as ensuring that they can trust that the volunteers will participate in the ways intended. But in contrast, the article argues that the central feature is actually the creation of a sense of intimacy, which serves to align the expectations and experiences of volunteer and researcher. Yet, while this relationship is necessary in order to ensure the required mental state is generated, during the experiment itself a great deal of work is then done to ensure it can be excluded from the final conceptualization of mental activity. (From the abstract.)
In other words, Cohn examines the issue of how “objective measures” can be derived from what is a necessarily an inter-subjective process.