Part of the allure of studying Victorian science is stumbling across references to unusual – often slightly bizarre – pieces of equipment. Admittedly, an instrument for measuring the breaking strain of the ribs (see previous blog post) still ranks as one of the most unexpected devices, but my research this week has revealed another interesting innovation in the form of ‘Whitwell’s brain slates’.
Edwin Goodall, whose positions included Superintendent of Cardiff City asylum, produced a slim volume in 1894 entitled The Microscopical Examination of the Human Brain. In it, he advised the reader of the best means to preserve specimens for further study, and provided a list of the equipment needed for a typical asylum pathological laboratory. The autopsy room, for example, should include – as well as the ‘ordinary post-mortem apparatus’ – tables comparing the metric and English systems and Centigrade/Fahrenheit, a steel tape measure, ether-freezing microtome, and ‘Whitwell’s brain slates for recording lesions’.
Brain lesions were systematically recorded at many asylums in the late nineteenth century as interest in cerebral localisation – matching the loss of sensory or motor functions to lesions on the brain itself – grew, often by way of small printed diagrams of the brain which could be coloured in or annotated to denote the site of abnormal changes in the brain substance. Often, these were glued into post-mortem books to supplement the written record of the pathologist. Brain slates aimed to improve upon these paper diagrams:
‘MESSRS. DANIELSSEN & Co. have recently, at the suggestion of Dr. Whitwell, of Menston Asylum, made a set of engraved diagrams of the brain on slates for use in post-mortem and dissecting rooms. The diagrams are life size, twenty-five in number, and arranged on ten slates. The engraved outlines are filled in with white enamel, the Sylvian, Rolandic, and parieto-occipital fissures being, however, coloured red.’
Such slates were ideal for the post-mortem room, being marked ‘in chalk … by the pathologist even though his hands [were] soiled and wet’. The technical detail included in these slates was evident in the list of appearances they depicted, with a clear concern for recording the site of lesions as accurately as possible (though R. Percy Smith, reviewing the slates, expressed concern that their ‘general appearance [was] rather confused by the amount of detail’). Slate 6, for example, depicted a ‘Vertical section through the corpus callosum, anterior pillars of the fornix and optic chiasma; vertical section through the corpus callosum, optic thalamus and crura cerebri’.
It’s difficult to assess how widespread these brain slates were – there are few references to them in contemporary journals – and they were perhaps something carried by word of mouth from asylum to asylum (Edwin Goodall had previously worked at the Wakefield Asylum, one part of the larger network of Yorkshire asylums which Menston was also part of). Certainly though, they were symptomatic of much late nineteenth-century asylum practice, demonstrating the desire to document lesions of the brain in a specific manner, but also the desire to reveal the brain’s mysteries via post-mortem examination.
Edwin Goodall, The Microscopical Examination of the Human Brain: Methods; with an appendix of methods for the preparation of the brain for museum purposes (London: Baillière, Tindall & Cox, 1894).
R. Percy Smith, ‘Brain Diagrams on Slates. (DANIELSSEN & Co., Beaumont Street, London, W.)’ [review], Brain 16 (1893).