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The study of the brain is as old as Hippocrates, but neurology as a science and as a clinical field was born in the 19th century. The manufacture of new and newly precise instruments for physical examination, surgery, and autopsy enabled doctors to make direct connections between behavior and the brain, and between reflex actions and the nerves.1

While the foundations of neurological localization were laid by Antoine Laurent Bayle and Paul Broca (namesake of the brain's language center), it was Jean-Martin Charcot who popularized the idea that behavioral abnormalities in a living patient could be traced to anatomical defects or 'lesions' in particular parts of the brain.2 With frequent collaborator Alfred Vulpian, Charcot described the pathological anatomy of a whole catalog of nervous system disorders and mentored most of a generation of French neurologists and psychiatrists, including Joseph Babinski, Pierre Janet, Pierre Marie, Jules Cotard, and Georges Gilles de la Tourette, ensuring that his influence remained pervasive long after his death in 1893.3 Charcot's school believed that most neurological illness, including hysteria and neurosyphilis, were chronic and hereditary.4 During WWI, French soldiers exhibiting symptoms similar to what today's doctors call PTSD were often diagnosed with hysteria or accused of malingering; neurosurgeon Clovis Vincent pioneered electroconvulsive therapy for such 'hysterical' soldiers.5 Neurologists Jean Georges Guillain, Jean Alexandre Barré, and André Strohl (the same team to name the autoimmune disease Guillain-Barré syndrome)6 manned a military neuropsychiatric center during the war.7 French neurology also fed contemporary European ideas about la dégénérescence or 'degeneration,' the theory that society was in continual decline because criminal tendencies were passed down genetically. Proposed by Parisian doctor Bénédict Morel in 1857 and later popularized by philosopher Max Nordau, la dégénérescence permeated the late 19th and early 20th century scientific world, influencing psychiatry, anthropology, criminology, and, eventually, the eugenics movement.8


  1. Bogousslavsky, "Birth of Modern Psychiatry," 1; Guenther, Localization and its Discontents, 4.
  2. Bogousslavsky, "Birth," 4; Clarac and Boller, "History of neurology in France," 634-5, 645; Hustvedt, Medical Muses, 12-13, 20-21; Veith, 228-230.
  3. Bogousslavsky, "Birth," 3; Goetz, Bonduelle, and Gelfand, Charcot, 319-323; Veith, Hysteria, 244-5.
  4. Goetz et al, Charcot, 260-3.
  5. Bogousslavsky and Tatu, "French Neuropsychiatry in the Great War," 145, 148-151; Bogousslavsky, "Hysteria after Charcot," 151-156; see also unchsl, "Mental Ill-Health in the Great War."
  6. Guillain-Barré syndrome was in fact first documented in 1859 by Jean Landry and is alternatively called Landry's ascending paralysis. See Clarac and Boller, "History," 642 and Schott, "Histoire du syndrome de Guillain et Barré," 932-4.
  7. Bogousslavsky and Tatu, "French Neuropsychiatry," 148
  8. Pick, Faces of Degeneration, 2-3, 9, 24-27; Goetz et al, Charcot, 262-3.
  9. See Goetz et al, Charcot, 108-9, 147-8.
  10. See Goetz et al, Charcot, 144.
  11. See Clarac and Boller, Charcot, 632-3.


    • Bogousslavsky, Julien. "Birth of Modern Psychiatry and the Death of Alienism: The Legacy of Jean-Martin Charcot." In Following Charcot: A Forgotten History of Neurology and Psychiatry. Karger, 2011: 1-8.
    • Bogousslavsky, Julien. "Hysteria after Charcot: Back to the Future." In Following Charcot: A Forgotten History of Neurology and Psychiatry. Karger, 2011: 137-159.
    • Bogousslavsky, Julien and Laurent Tatu. "French Neuropsychiatry in the Great War: Between Moral Support and Electricity." Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 22.2 (2013): 144-154.
    • Clarac, François and François Boller. "History of neurology in France." In History of Neurology, edited by Stanley Finger, François Boller, and Kenneth L. Tyler. Vol.95 of Handbook of Clinical Neurology. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2010: 629-656.
    • Goetz, Christopher G., Michel Bonduelle, and Toby Gelfand. Charcot: Constructing Neurology. Oxford University Press, 1995.
    • Guenther, Katja. Localization and its Discontents: A Genealogy of Psychoanalysis and the Neuro Disciplines. University of Chicago Press, 2016. DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226288345.001.0001.
    • Hustvedt, Asti. Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris. W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.
    • Pick, Daniel. Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c.1848-1918. Cambridge University Press, 1989. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511558573.
    • Schott, B. "Histoire du syndrome de Guillain et Barré." Revue Neurologique 138, no.12 (1982): 931-938. [Article in French]
    • unchsl. "Mental Ill-Health in the Great War." Tumblr post, March 15, 2018.
    • Veith, Ilza. Hysteria: The History of a Disease. University of Chicago Press, 1965.