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The Genesis of Neuroscience
  1. ROGER BARKER

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    The Genesis of Neuroscience. Edited by e r laws and george udvarhelyi (Pp 371) Published By The American Association of Neurological Surgeons, Illinois, 1998. ISBN 1-879284-62-6.

    This is an incredibly enjoyable book, which provides a fascinating insight into the history of neuroscience. It was devised by the late A Earl Walker and has been put together as a tribute to his industrious efforts to trace the history of neuroscience from ancient to modem times, and it serves as a fine tribute to him. The book builds through 11 chapters from prehistoric times through Galen and Vesalius to the founders of modem day neurology from the later part of the 19th century. The book contains endless fascinating insights into multiple aspects of neuroscience and although the illustrations are a little disappointing in parts there are some rare pictures, such as one of James Parkinson himself.

    The book opens with a series of chapters which lay out the historical perspective of neuroscience, following which chapters detailing specific conditions are presented. Thus in the chapter on peripheral nerves we discover that Rollo in 1797 first described diabetic neuropathy, whereas Bontius in 1642 first described beri-beri. These chapters on regional neurology then pass on to the final chapters of the book that deal with the evolution of neurosurgery, which details in particular the first descriptions of various brain tumours. The book concludes with a chapter on the modem age of neuroscience and a magnificent list of references. If this were not enough, we are then treated to three appendices on art and neurology, medical fees, and a glossary of neurological syndromes. All most illuminating, although the account on art and neurology is not as exhaustive as it could be, given the fascinating speculations that are rife in this area. For example, what was the problem with Monet giving rise to his visual failure in later life and what, if anything, is the neurological abnormality shown in Dürer's drawing of praying hands.

    This book is, though, a treasure trove of fascinating facts—for example, it was news to me that Galen was the first to describe the corpus callosum while the quadrigeminal bodies had to wait until Willis before they were acknowledged. This attention to detail and the ingenuity of these earlier investigators is inspiring, although many of these early investigators may have run into problems with local ethics committees or the Home Office inspector—for example, Galen cut the spinal cord at each level and observed the state of the animal. Indeed the industry of some of these early investigators is to be greatly admired. For example, Raymond de Vieussens de Montpelier dissected 500 fixed brains in his bid to clarify some of the finer points of neuroanatomy.

    A book such as this is always going to struggle to define its audience, not least because historical medicine seems irrelevant to the high tech age of molecular genetics and functional imaging. If we can see the acetylcholine receptor at the resolution of a few Angstroms, why bother with the gross techniques of years gone by. However, there is much to admire and learn about through a knowledge of the pioneering days of neuroscience, and the elucidation of anatomical structures along with clinical conditions. It teaches much about diligence and thoughtful investigation as well as ingenuity in the face of seemingly intractable problems and scientific dogma. It is a book that is, therefore, not solely relegated to that of source material for quiz questions but reminds us of how our specialty took shape. It documents the influences that have made neurology and neurosurgery what it is today and the inspiration that has fallen on individuals over the ages and through whom we have made giant leaps in our understanding of how the brain works in health and disease. As you might have guessed by now, I loved this book and strongly recommend it to others.

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