History of British Neurology

Author(s): F C Rose

Published by: Imperial College Press

Price: £73.00

ISBN Number: 9781848166684

Book reviewed by: AJ Larner

The approach to neurological history adopted in this handsome volume is to present a number of brief biographies, usually no more than a page in length, of neurologists and practitioners in allied neuroscientific disciplines who have made “significant neurological contributions” (2).  Particularly renowned individuals, such as Thomas Willis, Hughlings Jackson, William Gowers, Henry Head, and Charles Sherrington, merit longer entries.  In addition to a summary of their contributions, a brief flavour of personality is also sometimes added to the portrait.  Since “history” encompasses institutions as well as individuals, it comes as little surprise that the development of Queen Square is also discussed.  The sections are largely arranged chronologically, but there are also chapters devoted to neuropathology, neurophysiology, and other neurosciences.  Citations are largely to the secondary literature, but there are a few primary references.

The approach is unrelentingly “whiggish”, according to the usage coined by the historian Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979), i.e. that history may be read as a progression towards liberalism and enlightenment.  This is apt in some ways, since British neurology has unequivocally made major advances since Willis. However, it probably exacerbates the inevitable gender bias: only one woman, Dorothy Russell (269-270), makes the cut. All other females who appear are either patients (Anne Green: 22-23; Anne Conway, 44) or the discredited assistant to a male protagonist (Kathleen Chevassut, 168, 201).  The specified parameter “British” sometimes breaks down: although one can accept Brown-Séquard (152-155) as born in a British colony (Mauritius). And, I suppose, Ireland did not have home rule at the time of Graves (101) and Bentley Todd (102). But no amount of special pleading can explain Hans Berger (295), however great his contribution (EEG).  If “contribution” is a prerequisite, Monro tertius (61-62) is also a dubious inclusion.

Many neurologists take an interest in the history of their specialty, perhaps most particularly in the lives and discoveries of their predecessors in the discipline, and hence will take a delight in this book.  Since numbers of neurologists in the UK have traditionally been few, most practitioners can trace back a “neurological family tree”, as it were, to distinguished figures overall a fairly small number of degrees of separation.  Clifford Rose himself does this, with his first hand accounts of Charles Symonds (199-200) and Henry Miller (209), amongst others.  It is not difficult to think of particular individuals who might also have been included in such a volume as this, and to my way of thinking, Neuropsychology seems a particular omission.

Reviewing this book shortly after the author’s death (1 November 2012), it is appropriate to say that it will stand as a monument to one of Clifford Rose’s longstanding interests and endeavours, and will be enjoyed by many readers.  However, without wishing to seem unduly critical, it would be remiss of any reviewer not to mention the lapses in chronology which are by no means infrequent, and do detract from the overall enjoyment of reading, likewise the inadequacy of the index.