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Charles-Edouard Brown-Séquard, the biography of a tormented genius
  1. James W Lance
  1. Correspondence to Professor James W Lance, 54 Queen Street, Woollahra, Sydney, NSW 2025, Australia; jimlance{at}

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L-C Celestin. Published by Springer, 2014. ISBN: 978-3-319-03019-7

The term ‘Brown-Séquard Syndrome’ has a certain appeal to the clinician, not only for the precise correlation of the symptoms comprising it with the anatomical tracts severed by a hemicord lesion, always gratifying to demonstrate to students, but also in the hint of a romantic background to the man after whom the syndrome was named.

This recent biography, by Celestin, draws heavily on Brown-Séquard's personal and private papers to add authenticity to a comprehensive study of his scientific contributions, and the difficulties he faced in financing and achieving them. It also sheds light on his complex character, and the times in which he lived.

He was born in April 1817, in Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean, roughly midway between the Cape of Good Hope and India, of strategic importance in the turmoil during and after the Napoleonic Wars. Mauritius was ruled by the French until 1810, when it was named ‘Isle de France’. After the island was invaded by the British, ownership was decided by the Treaty of Paris in 1814, which confirmed British rule, but generously encouraged French influence to continue to dominate Mauritian culture.

Charles-Edouard's father was born in Philadelphia, of immigrant Irish parents, in 1784, and served in the US Navy, later becoming captain of a vessel trading between Port Louis in Mauritius and Madras. He married a ‘vivacious young lady’, Charlotte Séquard, daughter of a prominent businessman, in 1816. Shortly after they married, Captain Brown's ship was lost at sea during a return voyage from Madras, presumably foundering in a hurricane, leaving Charlotte to care for and bring up, on her own, Charles-Edouard Brown, who legally added Séquard to his name in 1858.

Brown-Séquard's genetic background of Irish-American and French lineage was enhanced by an Indian contribution from his maternal great-grandmother, which was …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.