Nerve fibres as depicted in Robert Bentley Todd and William Bowman's The physiological anatomy and physiology of man. Volume 1. London: John W. Parker, 1845 [KCSMD Historical Collection QP34 TOD]Nerve vesicles from the Gasserian ganglion of a human subject as depicted in Robert Bentley Todd'sThe descriptive and physiological anatomy of the brain, the spinal cord, and ganglions. London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 1845 [KCSMD Historical Collection QM451 TOD]Robert Bentley Todd (1809-60) played a significant part both in the history of King’s College London and in the world of medicine in general. In his post as professor of physiology and general morbid anatomy at King’s, as first Dean of the medical school at King’s and as physician to King’s College Hospital, he established standards, laboratory facilities and discipline which other medical schools of the era followed, helping to put an end to the private anatomy schools of the previous generation.
In so doing, he changed the nature of medical education in this country. He was also instrumental in establishing the first training school for nurses, anticipating the later achievement of Florence Nightingale. He was far-sighted in the treatments which he advocated; he was sceptical of the value of phlebotomy, purging and vomiting, and (rather controversially) prescribed brandy.
If that were not enough, Todd’s contributions to medical literature were highly original. The Physiological anatomy and physiology of man and the Cyclopaedia of anatomy and physiology, both shown here, were the first works to use the findings of the microscope to show the histology of the human body.
This was not the only factor which gave Todd some unique insights into the workings of the nervous system. His curiosity concerning developments in other areas of science helped to put him ahead of contemporaries such as Kölliker, and to anticipate the findings of Cajal and Sherrington.
'The limbs of a frog prepared after Galvani's fashion' from: Robert Bentley Todd (ed.) The cyclopaedia of anatomy and physiology. Volume 3. London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 1845 [KCSMD Historical Collection QL7 TOD]Portrait of Robert Bentley Todd [College Archives KHMS/PH1/1/75]He made a number of discoveries concerning the nervous system, including identifying the sensory functions of the posterior columns of the spinal cord, but it is for his insights into what later became known as the functioning of the ‘synapses’that he should be remembered.
As EH Reynolds has pointed out, Todd was far ahead of even the most advanced neurologists of his day. Todd knew Michael Faraday (1791-1867), who was developing his theory of the polar forces of electromagnetism. Todd applied this to what he had observed of the histology of the nervous system through microscopical investigation. Each nerve cell, or ‘vesicle’, as he called them, had one or several nerve fibres attached to it, and each nerve fibre was connected to a cell to which many other fibres were connected.
Through this insight Todd not only foresaw Cajal’s neuron theory, for which he would be awarded the Nobel Prize, but cast doubt on Golgi’s recticular theory, because he emphasised the vital physiological function of nervous polarity, even without the staining method which was available to Golgi.
Each nerve cell and its associated fibres - that is, each neuron - was, according to Todd, a distinct apparatus for the development of nervous polarity, although, with Faraday, he doubted whether this polarity was identical to electricity. In so doing, he anticipated the conclusions not only of Ferrier and Sherrington but also of later scientists such as Edgar Adrian.
Why were Todd’s discoveries not recognised in his own day and ignored by his successors? One answer may be that he was too much of a scientific polymath for less knowledgeable people to recognise the originality of his contribution. Another reason may be that one of his most important successors, David Ferrier, was notorious in not acknowledging his intellectual debts to other scientists.
In this exhibition
- The first neurologists
- Robert Bentley Todd and neuroscience
- The origins of modern neuroscience
- The first alienists
- From alienism to psychiatry
- War psychiatry
- Aubrey Lewis
- Hilda Lewis
- Select bibliography