Author Archives: Michael A. Finn

The Giants’ Shoulders #58: Without theme

Hello, and welcome to Giants’ Shoulders #58, the monthly online carnival of history of science blogging, this month hosted at Asylum Science. There have been a whole load of interesting posts and programmes on the history of science, technology and medicine recently, so here’s a round-up of what caught my eye: a bit like the Top 40, but without the (public) ding-dong battle over what to include.


Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013): pictured not inventing soft-scoop ice cream

With the death of Margaret Thatcher (pictured right), histories of politics (and economics) in the second half of the twentieth century seem to have dominated the news in the UK over the last week. But, that doesn’t mean historians of science had nothing to say about the Iron Lady. Over at the Guardian’s Political Science blog, Jon Agar and Alice Bell both commented on Thatcher’s ambiguous relationship with science policy (and even more ambiguous relationship with Mr Whippy). And, looking forward in the field of science policy, Rebekah Higgitt and James Wilsdon discussed the positive role that historians of science can play in political decision-making. Before this, history in general (but only in relation to Britain) had become something of a political football in the heated responses to Michael Gove’s proposed new national curriculum (discussed last month by Seb Falk). Add this to the ongoing debates over open access and the impact agenda, and the rise of pseudo-academic journals, and there are plenty of contemporary issues for historians of science to be mindful of. Robin Schleffer’s thoughts on ‘slow science’, Patrick McCray on the opium of technology, the ever thoughtful contributions of Will Thomas, and the recent focus section in Isis on the Future of the History of Science (free access), also give plenty of food for thought on the future directions of the discipline.

Troubled Minds

Emotional Time Machine

There was further 80s revisionism on the BBC as it commemorated the 25th anniversary of the introduction of Prozac. In fact, there have been a few interesting Radio 4 shows on the history of psychiatry recently, and on BBC 2 there is a series currently airing on Royal Illnesses, including an obligatory retrospective diagnosis of George III (whose recovery was celebrated with a blaze of light). Elsewhere in London, Chris Millard queried the possibility of equating emotional states across different centuries, as he took audiences back in time in a Carnival of Lost Emotions, as part of a Festival of Neuroscience. Thomas Dixon examined the complex meanings that can be attributed to weeping, Lisa Smith raised the historical problems of measuring physical or emotional pain and linking it with particular brain states, and Jesse Bering reported on the surprisingly sexual etymology of the neuro-anatomical terms used for the brain’s different parts.

In his Trying Biology blog, Adam Shapiro wrote a couple of interesting posts on the links between anti-evolutionary thinking and, firstly, the anti-eugenics movement, and secondly, antidisestablishmentarianism. Laura Jane Martin noted Darwin’s interest in monstrosities, David Bressan recounted Charles Lyell’s search for the sea snake, and Romeo Vitelli wrote about early 20th century attempts to train chimpanzees. Outside of the academy, Bess Lovejoy presents the story of Orrill Stapp, whose search for the Other World was recorded at the Seattle Public Library. Importantly, if you want to understand human character, look here.

Doctors, Patients, Poisons and Potions

Brains weren’t the only suggested source of mental illnesses, however, as Jennifer Wallis explored in her post on the surgical origins of post-operative insanity. Meanwhile, Maev Kennedy reports on the happier products of surgery, as the design for a statue of the WWII plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe and his ‘Guinea Pigs’ was unveiled in East Grinstead. The Dead Bell blog uncovered an individual (though perhaps typical) case of industrial poisoning from chemical dyes in early 20th century USA; Linda M. Richards detailed the widespread poisoning of Navajo people and land by uranium mining waste in the latter decades of the century; and Dominic Berry began investigating Sir William Gavin, who may well have poisoned the entire English countryside! Bloggers from the British Library looked at the roles of Indian doctors and the East India Company in combating outbreaks of cholera in the nineteenth century. Jennifer Evans considered the intriguing relationships between doctors and patients in the early modern period, and the way the location of treatment affected their position (anyone fancy staying with their surgeon for a few weeks?). On the subject of human reproduction, Lisa Plotkin writes about the presence of ‘foreign bodies’ in pregnant women, including slippery elm bark and uterine fibroids (UCL have an exhibition on this theme, open until July); at the Dittrick Museum, Brandy Schillace traces the emergence and disappearance of William Smellie’s 18th century birthing automaton (see also the story of another, chess-playing automaton); and, following the passing of Sir Robert Edwards (1925-2013), this 2010 article (free access) provides an interesting account of the hostile reception to his IVF research in the early 1970s.

Food stuffs and ingenious concoctions were also popular this month. At the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, Lindsey Fitzharris discussed the Victorian hostility to masturbation, which led to the production of graham crackers and cornflakes, among other things! Thony Christie provided a lovely Roman recipe for stuffed dormouse delicately seasoned with fermented fish sauce, and also presented us with an account of Dr Thomas Moffet, a Paracelsian practitioner who recommended salt for a healthy sex life. Also at the Recipes Project, Tillmann Taape outlined the heavenly properties of super-distilled wine, and Ashley Buchanan looked at the secret medicines produced at the Medici court. From the concoctinghistory blog we got ancient recipes for soap, Rebecca Unsworth took us through the history and processes of producing a starched ruff, and Fiona Keates described the solid food and detestable coffee served at the Royal Society under Sir Joseph Banks.

A Ruff Made by Rebecca Unsworth Once Starched. Photo © Rebecca Unsworth, Courtesy of the School of Historical Dress.

Picturing, Measuring, and Exploring

Albert Einstein holding a puppet of Albert Einstein.

Images remain a popular subject in the history of science, and there were plenty of wonderful pictures to see in the blogosphere. At The H-Word, Rebekah Higgitt began a series on ‘Picturing Science’, exploring a range of paintings, caricatures and slides from the National Maritime Museum’s collections, whilst Vanessa Heggie recounted the physiological planning that went into flying over, and photographing, Mount Everest. Felicity Henderson considered Robert Hooke’s Micrographia - the first fully illustrated book of microscopy – and Nehemiah Grew’s Musaeum Regalis SocietisMike Rendell illustrated the varied career of an image based on Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden; Google honoured the illustrations of Maria Sibylla Merian; Keith Moore looked at blue lizards; Genotopia turned attention back to composite photography; John F. Ptak presented pictures of star clustersSt Andrews Special Collections and Paula Findlen discussed the work of Athanasius Kircher; and Albert Einstein held a puppet of himself (above right). At Scientific American, Clarissa Ai Ling Lee began a detailed study of the culture of scientific diagrams, beginning with examples from mathematics and physics.

The clocks went forward for British Summer Time, but the loss of sleep didn’t affect the Board of Longitude Project blog, where a constant stream of posts covered topics including: setting the date for Easter; timekeeping on the Bounty; and using earwax to fix quadrants. For those of us looking at the stars, there was Thony Christie on grumpy astronomers in the late 17th century, Alice Sage on star-gazing girls in the 18th century (see also these other great links about women in science), Imogen Clarke on early 20th century astronomical expeditions (and the split between ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ physics), and Amy Shira Teitel on cosmonauts stranded in the Siberian forest. There were also stories of travel that included Edmond Halley on HMS Paramore, Charles Wilkes on the last great worldwide sailing expedition, Vincent Lunardi in a balloon, Albert Einstein sailing around in search of wisdom, and forensic biologists in search of Tycho Brahe’s nose. Finally, we also learned that Tom Lehrer (of ‘The Elements Song’ fame) turned 85 recently, that Michael Faraday occasionally failed, and that Sherlock Holmes was a great chemist.

The End

Phew! Well hopefully that should be enough reading to keep everyone busy for an hour or two. Thanks to Lisa Smith, Thony Christie and Rebekah Higgitt for all their suggestions, and thanks to you for visiting our website. Giants’ Shoulders #59 will return again on 16 May 2013 in… Something by Virtue of Nothing, a blog run by Kata Phusin ( You can send your suggestions directly to Kata, or to Thony Christie at The Renaissance Mathematicus.

(Anti)Vivisection and the Asylum

As previous articles on this blog have highlighted, animals occasionally played an important part in asylum research in the nineteenth century. Their behaviours could be observed as part of the growing programme of comparative psychology, and they could be used to study the physiological or psychological effects of new drugs. They were also crucial in the development of cerebral localisation theory, being the experimental subjects of various stimulation and ablation procedures which aimed to locate different mental functions in distinct regions of the brain cortex. Tests on dogs, cats, monkeys, rabbits, etc, were a surrogate for human experimentation, and the results of animal studies were transferred to an understanding of the human brain.

David Ferrier. © Wellcome Images.

David Ferrier, a Scottish physician who began his animal research in the laboratory of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum in 1873, became the leader of cerebral localisation studies in Britain. His ideas were quickly accepted by most of the scientific community, but they were still highly contentious, and Ferrier, at the front of this programme, became the focus of various criticisms. His evidence was critiqued, and his work was attacked on its principles too. Cerebral localisation was not just reductive of empirical explanation, but reductive of the human soul. His “new phrenology,” as it was termed by its critics, was seen by some as an attempt to remove God from an understanding of the human mind.

In 1875, Frances Power Cobbe wrote that “the prevalent materialistic belief that the secrets of the Mind can be best explored in matter, undoubtedly account in no small matter for the vehemence of the new pursuit of original physiological investigations.” Cobbe, who founded the Victoria Street Society and was the single most influential figure of the anti-vivisection movement in Britain, saw experimental brain studies as unquestionably linked with materialism and the rise of animal experimentation. She believed in an independent, God-given mind, which the new cerebral localisation reduced to simple reflexive machinery. In the most macabre fashion, experimenters showed that volitional acts were not reliant on a conscious, immaterial mind: cats clawed and macaques kicked simply by stimulating a small region of the animals’ brain.

Frances Power Cobbe. © Wellcome Images.

Following a period of petitioning and canvassing, anti-vivisection protestors led by Cobbe succeeded in prompting a Royal Commission into vivisection in 1875. In the House of Commons, the MP James Maden Holt argued that Ferrier’s experiments manifested “a refinement of cruelty which renders the operator… quite unfit to be trusted with the care of an animal, much less of a human being.” He pointed out that “[w]hen it comes to the knowledge of the public that these are the practices of a medical man who has free access to the lunatic asylums of the West Riding, public indignation will know no bounds.” Anti-vivisection campaigners voiced the concern that allowing animal testing was a slippery slope that might eventually lead to human experimentation in asylums or other medical institutions. They had reason to worry. Across the Atlantic, an Ohio physician named Roberts Bartholow had already replicated Ferrier’s electrical stimulations on Mary Rafferty, a young cancer patient under his care at the city’s Medical College.

In 1876, Parliament passed the Cruelty to Animals Act (which lasted for 110 years). Under the Act, vivisection could continue, but only for original, useful purposes, with a license from the Home Secretary. Anti-vivisection campaigners saw the Act as a concession to the scientific lobby, and so whilst trying to alter the Act, they also sought to prosecute individuals under the new laws in place. Their main target was Ferrier. In a well-documented session of the 1881 International Medical Congress in London, Ferrier had presented a monkey which had its left motor cortex removed, leaving it with no voluntary control of its right-sided limbs. He was then summoned to court for operating on animals without an appropriate license, though the case was soon thrown out when it was revealed that Ferrier’s assistant had actually conducted all the experiments, and was in possession of a full license. Cobbe’s prosecution failed, and the scientific community breathed a collective sigh of relief. Anti-vivisection campaigners turned to reflect on their movement, and to repeat to their audiences the potential tragedies that lurked in a country that did not seriously resist animal experimentation. The incidence of such operations would undoubtedly continue to rise, and scientists would push the boundaries of decency further. Indeed, in a society openly tolerant of testing on animals, surely it was only a matter of time before scientists turned to other humans as their test material?

Front cover of Heart and Science. © Andrew Gasson.

Ferrier, localization and vivisection became topics for several prominent novels of the time. In Heart and Science (1883), written in response to Ferrier’s 1881 trial, Wilkie Collins tried to “drag the scientific English Savage from his shelter behind the medical interests of humanity.” H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), showed how vivisected animals, which jabber and are kept in conditions similar to asylum patients (at least in the imagination of the public), eventually turn on their tormentor. And in Dracula (1897), Bram Stoker drew attention to the way modern psychology construed humans as automata devoid of a soul. Dr. Seward, an asylum superintendent in the novel, wrote that had he “the secret of one such mind – did I hold the key to the fancy of even one lunatic – I might advance my own branch of science to a pitch compared with which Burdon-Sanderson’s physiology or Ferrier’s brain knowledge would be as nothing.” Asylum patients were perfect material for experimental investigations.

As Richard French has shown, anti-vivisectionism in the nineteenth century was part of a broader public movement against the creeping power of scientific and medical authority, alongside other crusades like the early anti-vaccination campaigns or protests against the Contagious Diseases Acts. The worry of potentially being experimented upon like vivisected animals also had a resonance with criticisms of asylums, which were remote, foreboding and obscure institutions, whose working practices were mostly misunderstood and often dreaded. Alienism – the profession of treating the insane – was as foreign to most men and women as were the grotesque experimental practices of Dr Moreau. Through Ferrier, and his work at the West Riding, vivisection and asylums became well associated, in the scientific community, and the public mind too.

Further Reading

R.D. French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975).

S.L. Star, Regions of the Mind: Brain Research and the Quest for Scientific Certainty (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989).

A. Stiles, Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

The Ophthalmoscope: Viewing The Living Brain

Continuing the theme of medical technologies in the asylum, I’d like to turn to another, much more common instrument, but one whose role in psychiatric study is less well-known: the ophthalmoscope.

The ophthalmoscope in use, 1872. © Wellcome Images.

Created and described by Helmholtz in 1851, the ophthalmoscope was an instrument that allowed one to see into the back of the eye, revealing specific retinal conditions in diagnoses such as leukaemia, syphilis and diabetes. In particular it revealed the optic disc, the point at which the optic nerve reaches the eye from the brain, thus giving privileged access to the condition of the cerebral matter and the state of circulation in the brain. Short of opening up the skull, this was the only means to view any part of the brain in a living patient; and given that asylum doctors in the nineteenth century were committed to a somatic view of mental illness, and were looking for the physical (cerebral) causes of insanity, this was a useful tool. Yet a conservative medical profession in Britain was often resistant to new instruments replacing the experience and acumen of trained physicians, believing that such experimental, laboratory methods could never supplant the use of unaided  senses in the clinic. There were thus initially few British adherents, with Thomas Clifford Allbutt (1836-1925) complaining in 1871 that he could ‘count upon the fingers of one hand’ the number of physicians working with the ophthalmoscope in England.

Sir Thomas Clifford Allbutt. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

[There was a strong rumour, still perpetuated today, that Allbutt was the model for Dr. Lydgate in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (first published in serialised form between 1871 and 1872). This is probably wrong, though Eliot did visit Allbutt in September 1868, and wrote that he was a ‘good, clever, graceful man, enough to enable one to be cheerful under the horrible smoke of ugly Leeds’!]

Allbutt, the main proponent of ophthalmoscopy in nineteenth century Britain, was a physician and lecturer at the Leeds General Infirmary, and conducted some of his work at the nearby West Riding Lunatic Asylum (some patients under his care would occasionally make the same journey too). In his classic monograph On the Use of the Ophthalmoscope in Diseases of the Nervous System and of the Kidneys (1871), Allbutt included an appendix of two hundred and fourteen cases of insanity he had observed with an ophthalmoscope at the asylum. He found changes in the eye in a large proportion of those diagnosed with old or organic cases of brain disease. The usefulness of the ophthalmoscope in the asylum was clear to him, as he argued it would help remove ‘the metaphysical or transcendental habit of thought’ and bring a ‘more vigorous and more philosophical mode of investigation’ to disorders of the brain.

Images of optic neuritis taken from Allbutt’s 1871 book.

Allbutt’s work was continued at the asylum by Charles Aldridge, a young doctor who investigated blood supply in the brain using the ophthalmoscope, a tool which he said was ‘able to diagnose obscure cerebral affections through its instrumentality’. It had long been thought that blood flow, particularly an increased level leading to cerebral inflammation, was at the root of many instances of mental disease. As late as 1879, Bucknill and Tuke still argued that it ‘is most probable that inflammation is not the condition of insanity, but is the exciting cause of a secondary pathological state upon which the symptoms of insanity immediately depend’. The frequency with which inflammation, clots and congestion were found in post-mortem asylum cases was evidence of this.

Physiological experiments had shown that blood flow – and the nutrients, oxygen, and poisons it might contain – was crucial to normal cerebral functioning, and thus provided a route for doctors to describe and explain various mental conditions. In three papers in the 1870s, Aldridge presented his observations of cases of epilepsy, general paralysis and dementia using the ophthalmoscope. He concurred with Allbutt that general paralytics displayed atrophy of the optic disc, and further claimed that one could estimate how long the disease had existed by the relative amount of atrophy. Epilepsy, he found, was concurrent with a state of ‘passive hyperaemia’, whereby blood flow away from the brain was impeded, creating cerebral pressure. By contrast, dementia, whose sufferers were characterised by paleness of the optic disc, probably had its origin in a state of anaemia of the brain. The ophthalmoscope seemed to offer the possibility of diagnosis in all types of insanity.

However, whilst the ophthalmoscope did eventually become a popular instrument amongst general medical clinicians – and those dealing with disorders of the eye or nervous system in particular – it never really took hold in asylum practice. It could be used in the diagnosis of general paralysis, but this was a disease which could be more easily confirmed through other symptoms. And in other forms of insanity the ophthalmoscope was less reliable, as there was no constant causal relationship between lesions in the brain and observations of the eye. Instead, doctors would have to rely on other diagnostic criteria, and wait for the mortuary to make any specific claims about the state of the brain. The ophthalmoscope in the asylum is  illustrative of the way in which the potential uses and limits of new medical technologies are tested, and also of the way nineteenth-century asylum doctors followed a variety of leads in their attempts to link mental diseases with specific physical causes.

Further Reading

C. Aldridge, ‘The Opthalmoscope in Mental and Cerebral Diseases’, ‘Opthalmoscopic observations in general paralysis, after the administration of certain toxic agents’, ‘Ophthalmoscopic observations in acute dementia’, West Riding Lunatic Asylum Medical Reports, 1-4 (1871-1874).

T.C. Allbutt, On the Use of the Ophthalmoscope in Diseases of the Nervous System and of the Kidneys (London/New York: Macmillan & Co., 1871).

C. Lawrence, ‘Incommunicable Knowledge: Science, Technology and the Clinical Art in Britain 1850-1914′, Journal of Contemporary History, 20 (1985).

G. Rosen, The Specialization of Medicine, with particular reference to ophthalmology (New York: Froben Press, 1944).

Brains: A Victorian Construct

Following on from Jen’s great work so far, this is my first contribution to the blog…

As previously noted, asylum doctors in the nineteenth century were widely convinced of the somatic basis of mental illness, and spent a great deal of time pondering what bodily, particularly cerebral, changes affected the normal functioning of the mind. In Bucknill and Tuke’s Manual of Psychological Medicine, the dominant reference book amongst mid-Victorian psychiatrists, they pointed out that “diseased conditions which affect the mental functions must have their seat in the grey matter of the cerebral convolutions”. Insanity meant brain disease.

The biggest issue in studying insanity, therefore, was in matching a plethora of poorly understood psychological symptoms and classifications with their supposed material causes. In the clinical art of diagnosis, Bucknill and Tuke warned, the asylum doctor “must not only be a physician, but a metaphysician”, yet when it came to the aetiology of the disease, “rational pathology must ever be founded upon the basis of physiology”. Asylum science in the nineteenth century was a distinct form of practice that dealt simultaneously with mind and body, and was explicitly committed to the interdependence of the two. [Compare this to the DSM, the current standard manual in psychiatry, where little or no attempt is made to link mental disorders to pathological causes].

Asylum patients thus became the subjects and objects of psychiatric research. Patients were observed and recorded, a variety of instruments and techniques were adopted to assess the development of insanity, and an abundance of drugs were prescribed to alleviate or cure it. But it was only with the death of a patient that the brain became accessible, when it could be removed and studied in close detail. In many asylums across Britain, post-mortem examinations were therefore conducted in search of the brain lesions that might underlay mental illness.

At the West Riding Lunatic Asylum, between 1866 and 1876, well over a thousand autopsies were conducted under the supervision of James Crichton-Browne. Brains were observed, dissected, weighed, and often studied under a microscope. Most interestingly also, from the 1870s onwards they were drawn, with textbook diagrams bring used to record where in the brain particular lesions or other anomalies were seen.

Considerable wasting across the surface of the parietal and frontal regions.

Brain images from post-mortem reports of a general paralytic, September 1875.
West Yorkshire Archive Service, C85/1121

The main impetus to this asylum brain imaging was the development of the theory of cerebral localisation. Researchers – most notably including David Ferrier, who actually conducted his early experiments in the West Riding – had shown that the different motor and sensory functions of the brain could be localised at specific points in the cerebral hemispheres of animals. These findings were extrapolated to humans too, and by the mid-1870s Ferrier had produced the first full maps of human brain functions.

Later view of the human brain, with various motor centres labelled.
D. Ferrier, ‘The Functions of the Brain’ (London, 1876) Fig. 61.

Using pathological diagrams of patient brains from post-mortem examinations, and correlating these with the new maps of human brain functions, in 1876 Crichton-Browne was able to propose a specific link between the appearances of the brain and the symptoms of general paralysis. In general paralytics, the symptoms of mental impairment, restlessness, and exaltation were predictably followed by physical signs of tremor, inarticulacy and unsteadiness. Similarly, brain lesions began at the frontal lobe, and gradually spread backwards over the cerebrum during the course of the disease. This explained why the well-known psychical symptoms appeared first (the frontal lobe was understood as responsible for higher executive functions), whilst the typical motor symptoms of general paralysis followed later (Ferrier placed the centres of motor control further back in the cerebrum).

Mapping out brain lesions, and linking these with the observed symptoms of insanity, represented a fundamental aim of Victorian medical psychology research. From collecting details on admission to preparing cadavers in the mortuary, an image of each lunatic patient was constructed according to pre-existing ideas on the nature of insanity and ultimately, in post-mortem reports, the patient was reduced to a brain. This is a legacy that remains with us today in the reductionism of modern neuroscience and the ubiquitous ‘neuro-image’, where attempts are made to reduce everything from human emotions to literary theory down to colour-coded scans of brains.

MRI scan showing the regions of the brain involved in recognising familiar faces.
© Wellcome Images.

The casebooks and post-mortem reports of nineteenth century asylums provide us with an insight into their ideas and research about insanity. But these records are also a window onto the Victorian underclass, a documentation of men and women from the poorhouse who suffered poverty, insanity, and the ignominy of certification in the nineteenth century. In the eyes of their doctors, these patients were a constant opportunity for research, and a representation of the social and hereditary ills present among the populace. They were both a problem and an opportunity.

It is important to note, therefore, that whilst patients were carefully observed and examined, providing material evidence in an area of study that stimulated great academic and public interest, they were at the same time hidden away, deemed best catered for behind the closed doors of an institution. It is an irony worth remembering that the brains of the supposed idiots, insane and degenerates – the out-of-mind, out-of-sight, so to speak – were actually well viewed, and contributed more to scientific understanding than is perhaps realised. It was their brains, not those of the asylum doctors, on which scientific research rested.

Further Reading

M.J. Clark, ‘The Data of Alienism: Evolutionary Neurology, Physiological Psychiatry, and the Reconstruction of British Psychiatric Theory’ (Unpublished D. Phil Thesis: University of Oxford, 1982).

J. Crichton-Browne, ‘Notes on the Pathology of General Paralysis of the Insane’, West Riding Lunatic Asylum Medical Reports, 6 (1876).

D. Ferrier, The Functions of the Brain (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1876).

R.M. Young, Mind, Brain and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century: Cerebral Localization and its biological context from Gall to Ferrier (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970).