King's College London
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Mind Matters: neuroscience and psychiatry

Gaspar Spurzheim

Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832), with his mentor Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), is chiefly remembered for the theory of phrenology, according to which different mental functions and personality attributes are distributed in different parts of the brain.

Unfortunately, this theory, which could have been productive, was harnessed to craniology, which attempted to measure the brain’s capacity by the shape and size of the skull.

Anatomy of the brain as depicted in Gaspar Spurzheim's The anatomy of the brain, with a general view of the nervous system. London: published by S. Highley, 1826 [KCSMD Historical Collection QM455 SPUAnatomy of the brain as depicted in Gaspar Spurzheim's The anatomy of the brain, with a general view of the nervous system. London: published by S. Highley, 1826 [KCSMD Historical Collection QM455 SPUHowever, for a time many alienists, including John Conolly, were attracted to phrenology because it seemed to offer a biological (if not at this stage neurological) explanation of psychiatric illness. This would, it was hoped, legitimise the medical profession’s control of psychiatric care, but by the 1850s this hope had been exposed as a chimera.

Spurzheim’s best known theories have obscured the lasting contributions which he and his mentor made to the science of neuroanatomy, which altered the paradigm of the study of the brain from a mechanical and humoural viewpoint to an organic and biological one. Gall and Spurzheim viewed the nervous system as a hierarchically ordered series of separate but interrelated ganglia (as depicted here), which connected to the cerebral cortex. Higher structures developed from lower ones and were reinforced by other nerve pathways. Grey matter was the matrix of the nerves and the fibrous white matter served a conducting function.

They argued that the spinal cord was arranged in the same way but had developed independently of the brain. They made a detailed anatomical study of the spinal cord and traced the fibres of the medulla oblongata to the basal ganglia. Even those who derided their other unrelated theories of brain function acknowledged their contribution to neuroanatomy. Later scientists (such as Robert Bentley Todd) were to add their neurophysiological insights to Gall and Spurzheim’s anatomical work.

This copy of Spurzheim’s Anatomy was owned by Robert Bentley Todd.

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