Minds behind the Brain: A History of the Pioneers and Their Discoveries

Minds behind the Brain: A History of the Pioneers and Their Discoveries

Minds behind the Brain: A History of the Pioneers and Their Discoveries

Minds behind the Brain: A History of the Pioneers and Their Discoveries


Attractively illustrated with over a hundred halftones and drawings, this volume presents a series of vibrant profiles that trace the evolution of our knowledge about the brain. Beginning almost 5000 years ago, with the ancient Egyptian study of "the marrow of the skull," Stanley Finger takes us on a fascinating journey from the classical world of Hippocrates, to the time of Descartes and the era of Broca and Ramon y Cajal, to modern researchers such as Sperry. Here is a truly remarkable cast of characters. We meet Galen, a man of titanic ego and abrasive disposition, whose teachings dominated medicine for a thousand years; Vesalius, a contemporary of Copernicus, who pushed our understanding of human anatomy to new heights; Otto Loewi, pioneer in neurotransmitters, who gave the Nazis his Nobel prize money and fled Austria for England; and Rita Levi-Montalcini, discoverer of nerve growth factor, who in war-torn Italy was forced to do her research in her bedroom. For each individual, Finger examines the philosophy, the tools, the books, and the ideas that brought new insights. Finger also looks at broader topics--how dependent are researchers on the work of others? What makes the time ripe for discovery? And what role does chance or serendipity play? And he includes many fascinating background figures as well, from Leonardo da Vinci and Emanuel Swedenborg to Karl August Weinhold--who claimed to have reanimated a dead cat by filling its skull with silver and zinc--and Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein was inspired by such experiments. Wide ranging in scope, imbued with an infectious spirit of adventure, here are vivid portraits of giants in the field of neuroscience--remarkable individuals who found new ways to think about the machinery of the mind.


The purpose of this book is to look at the lives and discoveries of some of the major Western thinkers who contemplated how the brain may work. The stimulus for this project came from the many lectures I give each year to undergraduate and graduate students at Washington University in St. Louis, where I have long held a faculty position. My students wanted to know more about these pioneers as real people, what led to their discoveries, and the ramifications of their insights. For these more inquisitive minds, knowing the year of a landmark and a "beard" was not enough.

I realized that what my better students were asking for would benefit all concerned. I personally would gain perspective by looking at the scientific literature in social context. In addition, by saying more about the men, women, and cultures behind the great discoveries, my lectures would become more interesting and stimulating. And with clearer images of the people involved, my students would find the important facts easier to retain and associate with other events worth remembering.

For example, all of my students knew that French philosopher René Descartes wrote about animals being "beast machines" without souls. But they became even more fascinated by Descartes and his ideas when I told them that the man who denied higher thought and conscious feelings to animals had a pet dog of his own. The dog was suitably named Monsieur Grat ("Mr. Scratch"), and Descartes adored his pet and treated him with great affection. They were also intrigued by several other biographical facts about Descartes, such as how he was influenced by the mechanical revolution taking place in Western Europe the 1600s, why he chose to leave France to write in Holland, and how Galileo's tribunal in Italy led him to withhold publication of his most important work on the mind and brain.

To cite a second example of how an aspect of personal history can make a name and a discovery even more memorable, we can turn to David Ferrier, who stimulated or removed different parts of the roof brain in monkeys and other animals during the 1870s and 1880s. Ferrier's efforts led to a better understanding of the sensory and motor areas of the cerebrum. He became much more of a "modern," however, when my students learned how the militant animal-rights activists in London did everything in their power to make life hell for him. They even brought him to trial for allegedly experimenting on animals without an appropriate license.

With examples such as these implanted in my mind, I began to plan my book about the scientific elite and their insights about the nervous system. My first step was to decide who my major figures would be. Guiding me were two thoughts. First, I hoped to cover a wide expanse of time in order to show how physicians and scientists from different eras and cultures perceived the brain. Second, I did not want to deal with men and women whose discoveries and theories were so new that they had not undergone the test of time or could easily be found in other places.

Actually, I was also influenced by a third thought, although it was probably more . . .

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