Raised in East Hampton, on eastern Long Island (New York, USA), George Huntington (1850–1916) is known for his classic 1872 description of “hereditary chorea”. Earlier accounts had appeared in the USA, Britain, and Norway. They too described an inherited late-onset incurable illness with involuntary movements, cognitive changes, and psychiatric symptoms. But Huntington was the first to include a specific pattern of hereditary transmission, recognised later as “autosomal dominant”.
How did a 21-year-old newly graduated physician arrive at this insight, decades before the ideas of Gregor Mendel on heredity were rediscovered? Huntington himself always credited the observations of his physician father and grandfather over a period of seventy-years, for the patients he described were theirs, not his own. However I will suggest that several other features of his environment may have contributed as well. These include 1) the agricultural milieu of eastern Long Island and the local culture of raising cattle and sheep, with the attendant breeders’ concern over the transmission and non-transmission of specific traits from one generation to the next; 2) the unusually rich cultural resources of the Huntington’s household; and 3) George Huntington’s intimate appreciation of the emotions and anxieties of the affected families--his neighbors--who were concerned not only with how the disease was transmitted but even more with how it might not be passed on: how it might stop. This was precisely what he was the first to describe.
None of this detracts from his achievement in delineating, accurately and almost poetically, a devastating and still incurable disease. It suggests that social circumstances and cultural practices may enhance, rather than detract from, scientific discovery.