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Ancient Egyptian Papyrus

The oldest studies of the brain in any language are Egyptian papyrus. The now called: "Edwin Smith papyrus" is the earliest account we have of a description of the brain.

Today we have a copy from the seventh century BCE of the Edwin Smith papyrus from an original written about five thousand years ago, perhaps by the reign of Imhotep.

We do not know how many other documents have been lost from antiquity. The fact that this papyri exists is fortunate and a treasure that should be preserved.

Risk level | Very few objects and documents from this era have been preserved.

The Egyptians did not consider the brain important. Indeed, the ancient Egyptians, in mummification, completely ignored the brain by first removing it via the nose or elsewhere. The Edwin Smith papyrus described a gaping wound in the head with fractured skull and refers to pulsation of the brain, the anterior fontanelle, the meninges, and possibly the cerebrospinal fluid. Even as early as this, it was recognized that an injury to one side of the brain affected the leg on the other side of the body.

Plates vi & vii of the Edwin Smith Papyrus at the Rare Book Room, New York Academy of Medicine.



Classical Greece

Many texts from Classical Greece survive today. Thinkers were divided as to whether the heart or the brain was responsible for thought, courage, or behavior. The books of the classics that deal with the brain, including Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates and his son-in-law Polybus among others are available worldwide in libraries. We know that much more texts were written, from these authors and others. It is hard to fathom how much has been lost in time.

Risk level | Multiple texts survive, though many have been lost.

Hippocrates thought that that the governing faculty was the brain, not the heart. His texts pointed out that: “for all perceptions the brain alone is responsible. The eyes, the ears, the tongue, the hands, and the feet, only perform that what the brain has known as correct.” “It is the brain which permits the perception of hearing, vision and smell; from those memory and intuition arise; from memory and intuition, however, if they are settled and reposed, knowledge is built up”. Interventions to the brain were well understood, Hippocrates’ son-in-law Polybus, in a treatise entitled Wounds of the Head (c 390 BC), warned against surgical interference in a temporal lesion for fear of palsy on the opposite side of the body.

Bust of Hypocrates

Hellenistic Neuroscience in


We know that Alexandrian scholars Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus of Ceos, performed systemic dissections of fresh human brain.

Risk Level | Mostly lost, we have third party accounts of what research and books were in the library of Alexandria.

Little written material from the Alexandrian school survives. We know from other sources that Herophilus discovered the nerves in his dissections. Erasistratus distinguished between motor and sensory nerves. Initially, Erasistratus thought that the nerves came from the meninges but later traced them from the brain’s interior.

Nineteenth century artistic rendering of the Library of Alexandria by the German artist O. Von Corven, based partially on the archaeological evidence available at that time.


Galen | Pergamon & Rome

Galen, a physician to Roman emperors wrote over 500 treatises in Attic Greek but many were lost in the fire in Rome in 191 AD; five of these texts were neurological.

Risk Level | Many lost, some of his writings are preserved.

By the time it was understood that the brain, cranial nerves, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves were a connected system, but it was Galen, who gave the most accurate reports regarding cerebral localization.

Also, Galen used the term “apoplexy” to describe the condition in which all limbs were deprived of both motor and sensory functions at the same time.

Modern statue of Galen in his home town of Pergamon

Leonardo da Vinci | Florence

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) contributed to the study of the nervous system. His earliest surviving anatomical drawings (circa 1485–93) included studies of the skull, brain, and cerebral ventricles.

Risk level | As one of histories most celebrated artists, his work is carefully studied an preserved today.

Leonardo developed a method to inject hot wax into the ventricular system. Between 1504 and 1507, he injected wax into the ventricles of oxen and thus obtained their exact shape.

His dissections showed the olfactory nerve as a cranial nerve, detailed studies of the peripheral nervous system, anatomy of the skull, brain, and cerebral ventricles.

Leonardo da Vinci's manuscript sheet with anatomical drawings and notes, 1506/08.

Descartes |

France, Netherlands, Sweden

As one of the most prominent philosophers of the 17th century, Descartes' writings are globally available. Descartes is known for making a distinction between the body and the mind.

Risk Level | As one of the most notable philosophers in history, his writings are in no danger.

LCollections of his work tend to focus on his philosophy more than in his studies of the brain. His residence in Amsterdam where he spent more than 20 years here, writing most of his major works is today a private residence with a commemorative plaque out front that identifies the house.

Regarding the brain, Descartes assumed the indivisibility of the soul. He also extended this unity to the presence of the soul in the body. Just as an organist played an organ, so the soul worked the mechanism of the brain.

Thomas Willis, physician and natural philosopher, shared Descartes’ interpretation of a localizable soul in the solid parts of the brain, yet he distributed specific functions across various brain structures. Thus he assigned motor coordination and sensory functions to the striatum and unconscious processes to the cerebellum.

Portrait of René Descartes (1596-1650) by Frans Hals

Samuel Thomas von Sommerring


The German brain anatomist Samuel Thomas Soemmerring helped revive the old doctrine that located the soul in the ventricle. Descartes was the last one to propose such a theory and like him, Sommerring thought from every branch of science.

Risk level | His personal equipment is lost but multiple books notes and letters to his contemporaries survive, including Immanuel Kant, Georg Forster and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who criticized Sommerring for His theses of the inferiority of black people against European people he derived from the autopsy of the bodies of Africans.

Soemmerring’s theory promptly failed completely. Modern anatomy proved Soemmerring’s assumption that nerves end at ventricle walls wrong. Kant argued that the soul could only be an object of an “inner self” and thus subject to temporality. Consequently, the search for the physical location of the soul was itself contradictory. Reflection on the soul, Kant concluded, was philosophy’s business, not medicine’s.

His biggest contribution is his description of the organization of the cranial nerves. This study is still valid today.

Portrait of Samuel Thomas von Sommerring by Karl Thelott

Franz Joseph Gall | Vienna

Mostly know for the now debunked theories of the shape of the skull dictating character and skill; Gall was a prominent neuroanatomist.

Risk level | His books and studies are available. Notably, his anatomical wax brain replicas and skull collections are located at the Rollettmuseum in Baden. The collection includes Gall's own skull.

While developing his theories on localization of function, Gall significantly advanced the science of dissection. Instead of slicing randomly, as had been the practice in previous years, Gall's method involved slow exploration of the entire brain structure and the separation of individual fibers. This shift in methodology was extremely influential in future discoveries of the brain.

Franz Joseph Gall leading a discussion on phrenology. Credit: Wellcome Images

John Hughlings Jackson |


Victorian physician practicing in London. John Hughlings Jackso helped to define modern neurology by discovering that epilepsy, speech defects, and nervous-system disorders arise from injury to the brain and spinal cord.

Risk Level | Moderate, the primary sources of his writings are not widely held, and no published collection of his works exists. Journal publications are available and some of his letters to relatives are still in private hands. No museum or institution is in charge to preserve his legacy.

Jackson theorized that the brain is an exclusively sensorimotor machine. With this work, he separated neurology from psychiatry and established a rigorous and sophisticated structure for the brain and mind.

Jackson’s epilepsy studies initiated the development of modern methods of clinical localization of brain lesions and the investigation of localized brain functions. His definition (1873) of epilepsy as “a sudden, excessive, and rapid discharge” of brain cells has been confirmed by electroencephalography, a method of recording electric currents generated in the brain.

John Hughlings Jackson. Photogravure after L. Calkin, 1895. Credit: Wellcome Images

Pierre Marie | Paris

French neurologist whose discovery that growth disorders are caused by pituitary disease contributed to the modern science of endocrinology.

Risk level | As a celebrated neurologists, his books and papers are available. The journal Revue Neurologique, which he had founded in 1893 continues to publish research. Photographs, documents or lab instruments are not publicly available or unknown to being preserved.

He first described hereditary cerebellar ataxia. Also known as Marie’s ataxia it is a disease in young adults characterized by a failure of muscular coordination caused by an atrophy of the cerebellum.

Marie's discovery helped to strengthen the idea that functions of the brain are located in specific regions and that a malfunction in one region of the brain could be the reason for ataxia.

Portrait of Doctor Pierre Marie

Jules Dejerine | Geneva

Joseph Jules Dejerine, was a French neurologist by the turn of the century.

Risk level | Dejerine’s numerous publications span a period of more than 40 years are available in multiple languages. Photographs, documents or lab instruments are not publicly available or unknown to being preserved.

Dejerine was one of the pioneers in the study of localization of function in the brain, having first shown, that -word blindness- may occur as the result of lesions of a region of the brain.

Portrait of Jules Dejerine in his laboratory.

Hermann Wilbrand | Germany

Hermann Wilbrand was born in Giessen, a small university town in the center of Germany. He kickstarted the research of the interactions between eye and brain called, neuroophthalmology.

Risk level | Like many scientists, his publications and books are available, though there is no compilation of his photographs, documents or lab instruments. Some of his personal letters discussing neuroscience are in circulation in the private market.

Wilbrand found that the loss of one half of the field of vision in both eyes and on the same side was due not only to lesions of the optic tract and its adjoining structures but also to lesions of the optic radiations and the occipital cortex.

He postulated the existence of subdivisions of the visual cortex specialized for the perception of brightness, color, and form, i.e., separate centers for each of these senses.

Neuroophthalmology diagrams from Hermann Wilbrand

Synaesthesia Erlangen | Austria

Georg Tobias Ludwig Sachs wrote the first description of Synaesthesia in Latin in 1812. the book is entitled Natural History of Two Albinos.

Risk Level | Most contemporary researchers of synaesthesia fail to cite the case when offering a history of the subject and fewer still will have read it (the original was published in Latin). Sachs' documents, letters or instruments are not publicly available or unknown to being preserved.

Synaesthesia is a rare condition in which a stimulus evokes an extra perceptual quality not normally associated with that stimulus. For example, when hearing a sound the brain perceives color or when hearing or reading a word, the brain perceives taste. Sachs described reactions to Numbers, days of the week, time periods, letters, notes of music: [all of these elements] “adopt those colors. These introduce themselves to the mind as if a series of visible objects in dark space, formless and noticeably of different colors.”

Fritsch and Hitzig | Berlin

Fritsch and Hitzig are responsible for the most significant laboratory discovery in the history of cortical localization.

Risk level | Fritsch and Hitzig experiments are well known. Even though Hitzig held an academic position in Berlin, it was not possible to carry out the experiments in his institution, so they were conducted in Fritsch’s house. The preservation of historical documents, photographs and instruments from the time is space.

In 1870 two physicians, Gustav Theodor Fritsch and Eduard Hitzig, provided experimental support for Jackson's hypothesized motor area in the cortex. In a morbid experiment that was typical of the day, they restrained live dogs and--without anesthesia--cut away the dogs' skulls to expose an area of cortex. Then, they stimulated that cortex with current from a battery causing involuntary muscular contractions of specific parts of the dog's body.

Diagram of the various regions of the brain.

Maria Manasseina |

Saint Petersburg

Maria Manasseina was a Russian physician who published a number of books on fatigue and sleep.

Risk level | The status of female scientists in the 19th century was unfortunately overshadowed by men, regardless of merit. Her work has been translated to English. There is no compilation of Manaseina's photographs, documents or lab instruments.

In her monograph Sleep she observed that the brain is in an active state during sleep. She cited dreams as "evidence of an ongoing psychic life of sleep generated by the brain".

Portrait of Maria Manasseina.

Epilepsy in the Aurora Ship |

Antarctic expedition

Harold Shaw was a 29-year-old man with epilepsy who was part of the Ross Sea Party sailing on the vessel Aurora.

Risk status | As part of an Imperial Trans-Atlantic Expedition effort, journals and documents from the time have been preserved. This is proof that well kept records are vital for the study and understanding of neuroscience.

Shaw suffered nocturnal seizures that were documented in the diaries of the senior officers. This historical documentation provides strong evidence that Harold Shaw had epilepsy, with postictal states of confusion and interictal behavioral changes.

The Aurora crew 1.
The Aurora ship in the Antarctic 2.

The case of Phineas Gage | USA

Phineas P. Gage was an American railroad construction worker. An accident destroyed much of his brain's left frontal lobe. The consequences of the accident were studied and thoroughly documented.

The effects of this injury on his personality and behavior over the remaining 12 years of his life‍ were sufficiently profound that friends saw him as "no longer Gage."

Risk status | The case of Phineas Gage is one of the most abundantly documented case studies in the history of brain research. The Warren Anatomical Museum, in Boston, holds and preserves historical documents and objects from the case of Phineas Gage and many other relevant items. Though the museum is one of the last surviving anatomy and pathology museum collections in the United States.

Considering how well known Phineas Gage is today it is surprising to see that documents such as daguerreotypes of him have been identified in 2009 and 2010. Therefore the need to continue pushing for research and reservation of brain studies history.

Daguerreotype of Phineas Gage, discovered in 2009

Golgi & Cajal | Italy & Spain

In early 1873, Camillo Golgi discovered a method of staining nervous tissue that would stain a limited number of cells at random in their entirety. Under the microscope, the outline of the neuron became distinct from the surrounding tissue and cells.

This allowed Golgi and Santiago Ramón y Cajal to create drawings revealing that the brain is composed of a collection of individual cells, the neurons, which are interconnected to form a network.

Risk level | In the history of brain research, few objects are as intricate and valuable as the drawings from Cajal. The artistry and scientific importance is unparalleled. Most of Cajal's work is divided between the Cajal institute and the objects he left to his descendants. Documentation and preservation of this monumental legacy is In need of funding and attention.

Portrait of Camillo Golgi 1.
Portrait of Santiago Ramón y Cajal 2.

Drawing of Purkinje cells (A) and granule cells (B) from pigeon cerebellum by Santiago Ramón y Cajal. From the Instituto Santiago Ramón y Cajal. 3.