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21.9.10

Brown-Séquard, spinal cord research, and sperm injections

Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard


I should learn by now that any time I begin digging into the classic neuroscientific literature, I'm going to find weird stories. I've already covered Henry Head's self-experimentation and... penis dipping as well as Hans Berger's psychic experiments. Why should Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard be any different?

This post was supposed to focus on how interesting it is that much of what was first learned about the organization of the input and output pathways of the spinal cord was due to the work by Brown-Séquard. But forget it. This post is taking a whole new direction. Honestly, I can't do any better than just quote what Brown-Séquard wrote. I won't even try. Apparently Dr. Brown-Séquard wasn't a stranger to self-experimentation himself; he says:

I have made use, in subcutaneous injections, of a liquid containing a small quantity of water mixed with the three following parts: first, blood of the testicular veins; secondly, semen; and thirdly, juice extracted from a testicle, crushed immediately after it has been taken from a dog or a guinea-pig. Wishing in all the injections made on myself to obtain the maximum of effects, I have employed as little water as I could.

At the time of this letter in The Lancet, Brown-Séquard was 72. His experiments were carried out in hopes of regaining vitality, because he believed that

...in the seminal fluid, as secreted by the testicles, a substance or several substances exist which, entering the blood by resorption, have a most-essential use in giving strength to the nervous system and to other parts. But if what may be called spermatic anaemia leads to that conclusion, the opposite state, which can be named spermatic plethora, gives as strong a testimony in favour of that conclusion. It is known that well-organised men, especially from twenty to thirty-five years of age, who remain absolutely free from sexual intercourse or any other causes of expenditure of seminal fluid, are in a state of excitement, giving them a great, although abnormal, physical and mental activity.

As odd as this sounds to us, this letter is often credited as the beginning of modern endocrinology.

There are some brilliant gems in this article about his other forays into self-experimentation:

While teaching at the Medical School of Virginia, in the Egyptian Building, he attempted to elucidate important functions of the skin. He coated himself with varnish from head to foot and was later found unconscious on the floor... In another example, during the cholera epidemic on Mauritius, Brown-Séquard personally volunteered to treat the victims. He had known from Magendie's work that opium might be effective. To prove the efficiency of the drug, he attempted to catch cholera by swallowing the vomit of one of his patients and taking a large dose of laudanum.

Then there was his use of meat enemas to feed his patients; he says:

The patient had a violent and persistent spasmodic contraction of the oesophagus, caused by an inflammation of the brain. Finding that it was impossible to force a tube down into the stomach, we resolved to feed the patient by enemas of meat and pancreas. The bowels having been cleansed by an injection of lukewarm water, a part of which was generally kept, a mixture of about two-thirds of a pound of raw beef, with one-fourth or one-third of a pound of pancreas (hog’s) was pushed into the rectum by means of a wooden syringe. This operation was repeated twice a day, and the patient was so well fed by that means that he had not visibly lost flesh when he died-after apoplectic symptoms- eight days from the time these enemas had been first used... It is essential that the pancreatic gland which is to be used be from an animal quite recently slaughtered, as the tissue and juice of that gland lose their property very quickly if the temperature of the surrounding air is at all high.

He then goes on to suggest that this method would be useful in asylums:

I would call the attention of alienists and of superintendents of lunatic asylums to the advantage they would find in employing such a means of feeding, instead of the usual plan of forcing food into the stomach of patients who obstinately refuse to eat. The difficulty of forced alimentation would thus be very much lessened.

For those of you not familiar, there term "alienist" is an archaic term for, essentially, a psychiatrist. The history of psychiatry and alienism certainly merits its own, in-depth series of posts here some day...

I could go on quoting Brown-Séquard all day, but really, just do some googling and pubmed'ing and check him out. Absolutely fascinating.