Recently in Journal of the History of the Neurosciences: Charcot, Gall, and More

A number of recent articles in Journal of the History of the Neurosciences may be of interest to AHP readers. Full details follow below.

The concepts of heredity and degeneration in the work of Jean-Martin Charcot,” Olivier Walusinski. Abstract:

Transcripts of the Tuesday Lessons at La Salpêtrière Hospital show that Jean-Martin Charcot often asked his patients about their family history. The information gathered on patients’ heredity played also a significant role in the diagnostic reasoning he instructed his students in. Again and again, he included in his teachings the concept of degeneration to suggest an etiology for observed pathologies. This article analyzes the origin of Charcot’s knowledge, imparted in the Tuesday Lessons, by examining the theories of heredity and degeneration successively developed by Prosper Lucas (1808–1885) in 1847, Bénédict-Auguste Morel (1809–1873) in 1857, and Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours (1804–1884) in 1859. I will review examples taken from the Tuesday Lessons to illustrate how Charcot assimilated the ideas of these alienists. Two of his students, Charles Féré (1852–1907) and Georges Gilles de la Tourette (1857–1904), known for championing their master’s work, went on to publish their own books that developed theories of heredity and degeneration. I will conclude my review, which aims to examine a little known facet of Charcot’s work, with a few examples from these authors’ writings.

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes on phrenology: Debunking a fad.” Stanley Finger. Abstract:

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809–1894) was a Boston physician, a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, and a writer of prose and poetry for general audiences. He was also one of the most famous American wits of the nineteenth century and a celebrity not bashful about exposing costly, absurd, and potentially harmful medical fads. One of his targets was phrenology, and the current article examines how he learned about phrenology during the 1830s as a medical student in Boston and Paris, and his head-reading with Lorenzo Fowler in 1858. It then turns to what he told readers of the Atlantic Monthly (in 1859) and Harvard medical students (in 1861) about phrenology being a pseudoscience and how phrenologists were duping clients. By looking at what Holmes was stating about cranioscopy and practitioners of phrenology in both humorous and more serious ways, historians can more fully appreciate the “bumpy” trajectory of one of the most significant medical and scientific fads of the nineteenth century.

Jean-Martin Charcot’s medical instruments: Electrotherapeutic devices in La Leçon Clinique à la Salpêtrière,” Francesco Brigo, Albert Balasse, Raffaele Nardone & Olivier Walusinski. Abstract:

In the famous painting La Leçon Clinique à la Salpêtrière (A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière) by André Brouillet (1857–1914), the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893) is shown delivering a clinical lecture in front of a large audience. A hysterical patient, Marie Wittman (known as “Blanche”; 1859–1912) is leaning against Charcot’s pupil, Joseph Babinski (1857–1932). Lying on the table close to Charcot are some medical instruments, traditionally identified as a Duchenne electrotherapy apparatus and a reflex hammer. A closer look at these objects reveals that they should be identified instead as a Du Bois-Reymond apparatus with a Grenet cell (bichromate cell) battery and its electrodes. These objects reflect the widespread practice of electrotherapeutic faradization at the Salpêtrière. Furthermore, they allow us to understand the moment depicted in the painting: contrary to what is sometimes claimed, Blanche has not been represented during a hysterical attack, but during a moment of hypnotically induced lethargy.

“My God, here is the skull of a murderer!” Physical appearance and violent crime,” Jaco Berveling. Abstract:

Over the centuries, people have tried to determine character traits from a person’s appearance, beginning with the physiognomic efforts of the Greek philosophers Socrates (ca. 470–399 bce) and Aristotle (384–322 bce) and still continuing today. In this quest, the discovery of criminal tendencies from someone’s face always received special attention. This was also an important issue for physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828). Gall maintained that a criminal’s skull had a different shape than that of a law-abiding person. Phrenologists, as well as criminologists, including Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), further propagated Gall’s ideas and investigated countless heads of violent and petty criminals. This line of investigation led to much discussion and criticism. Were Gall, the phrenologists who followed him, and Lombroso sufficiently objective? Were these men really onto something, or were they led by prejudices? After Lombroso’s time, physiognomy and cranioscopy were discredited. However, in the last decades, some researchers are again trying to find out whether people are indeed able to distinguish violent criminals from nonviolent criminals on the basis of their faces.

Franz Joseph Gall on the “deaf and dumb” and the complexities of mind,” Paul Eling & Stanley Finger. Abstract:

Franz Joseph Gall used a broad variety of phenomena in support of his organology. Well known are his observations on anatomical features of the brain, species-specific behavioral patterns, the observation that some individuals may excel in one faculty while being mediocre in others, changes in the organs with development and aging, and how the organs associated with the faculties might be affected by diseases and acute brain lesions. We here present a widely overlooked source: his observations on individuals then classified as “deaf and dumb.” We discuss how these observations were presented by Gall in support of his organology and in his disputes with empiricists and sensationalists about the nature of mind.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.