Skip navigation

History of Neuroscience

  •  
  • Page 1 of 8
A Historical Introduction

This introduction to neuroscience is unique in its emphasis on how we know what we know about the structure and function of the nervous system. What are the observations and experiments that have taught us about the brain and spinal cord? The book traces our current neuroscientific knowledge to many and varied sources, including ancient observations on the role of the spinal cord in posture and movement, nineteenth-century neuroanatomists’ descriptions of the nature of nerve cells, physicians’ attempts throughout history to correlate the site of a brain injury with its symptoms, and experiments on the brains of invertebrates.

After an overview of the brain and its connections to the sensory and motor systems, Neuroscience discusses, among other topics, the structure of nerve cells; electrical transmission in the nervous system; chemical transmission and the mechanism of drug action; sensation; vision; hearing; movement; learning and memory; language and the brain; neurological disease; personality and emotion; the treatment of mental illness; and consciousness. It explains the sometimes baffling Latin names for brain subdivisions; discusses the role of technology in the field, from microscopes to EEGs; and describes the many varieties of scientific discovery. The book’s novel perspective offers a particularly effective way for students to learn about neuroscience. It also makes it clear that past contributions offer a valuable guide for thinking about the puzzles that remain.

Neuroscience, Self, and Society in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Emil du Bois-Reymond is the most important forgotten intellectual of the nineteenth century. In his own time (1818–1896) du Bois-Reymond grew famous in his native Germany and beyond for his groundbreaking research in neuroscience and his provocative addresses on politics and culture. This biography by Gabriel Finkelstein draws on personal papers, published writings, and contemporary responses to tell the story of a major scientific figure. Du Bois-Reymond's discovery of the electrical transmission of nerve signals, his innovations in laboratory instrumentation, and his reductionist methodology all helped lay the foundations of modern neuroscience.

In addition to describing the pioneering experiments that earned du Bois-Reymond a seat in the Prussian Academy of Sciences and a professorship at the University of Berlin, Finkelstein recounts du Bois-Reymond's family origins, private life, public service, and lasting influence. Du Bois-Reymond's public lectures made him a celebrity. In talks that touched on science, philosophy, history, and literature, he introduced Darwin to German students (triggering two days of debate in the Prussian parliament); asked, on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, whether France had forfeited its right to exist; and proclaimed the mystery of consciousness, heralding the age of doubt. The first modern biography of du Bois-Reymond in any language, this book recovers an important chapter in the history of science, the history of ideas, and the history of Germany.

On September 2, 1971, the chemist Paul Lauterbur had an idea that would change the practice of medical research. Considering recent research findings about the use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) signals to detect tumors in tissue samples, Lauterbur realized that the information from NMR signals could be recovered in the form of images—and thus obtained noninvasively from a living subject. It was an unexpected epiphany: he was eating a hamburger at the time. Lauterbur rushed out to buy a notebook in which to work out his idea; he completed his notes a few days later. He had discovered the basic method used in all MRI scanners around the world, and for this discovery he would share the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2003. This book, by Lauterbur’s wife and scientific partner, M. Joan Dawson, is the story of Paul Lauterbur's discovery and the subsequent development of the most important medical diagnostic tool since the X-ray.

With MRI, Lauterbur had discovered an entirely new principle of imaging. Dawson explains the science behind the discovery and describes Lauterbur’s development of the idea, his steadfastness in the face of widespread skepticism and criticism, and related work by other scientists including Peter Mansfield (Lauterbur’s Nobel co-recipient), and Raymond Damadian (who famously feuded with Lauterbur over credit for the ideas behind MRI). She offers not only the story of one man's passion for his work but also a case study of how science is actually done: a flash of insight followed by years of painstaking work.

This landmark volume, which remains influential today, is the result of an interdisciplinary, two-week international symposium on principles of sensory communication hosted by MIT in July 1959. This symposium brought together prominent neuroscientists, life scientists, physical scientists, and engineers who, in Walter Rosenblith’s words, “were willing to listen to neurophysiologists expound up-to-date neurophysiology, or psychophysicists talk about contemporary psychophysics, without being satisfied with their own version of the other man’s science.” The work presented forms the basis of much of the contemporary research in vision and perceptual science. First published by the MIT Press in 1961, Sensory Communication has been out of print and extremely difficult to obtain for many years. This reprint makes this valuable resource available again.

From Enlightenment to Neuroscience

Although Hermann von Helmholtz was one of most remarkable figures of nineteenth-century science, he is little known outside his native Germany. Helmholtz (1821–1894) made significant contributions to the study of vision and perception and was also influential in the painting, music, and literature of the time; one of his major works analyzed tone in music. This book, the first in English to describe Helmholtz's life and work in detail, describes his scientific studies, analyzes them in the context of the science and philosophy of the period—in particular the German Naturphilosophie—and gauges his influence on today's neuroscience.

Helmholtz, trained by Johannes Müller, one of the best physiologists of his time, used a resolutely materialistic and empirical scientific method in his research. His work, eclipsed at the beginning of the twentieth century by new ideas in neurophysiology, has recently been rediscovered. We can now recognize in Helmholtz's methods—which were based on his belief in the interconnectedness of physiology and psychology—the origins of neuroscience.

More Tales in the History of Neuroscience

Neuroscientist Charles Gross has been interested in the history of his field since his days as an undergraduate. A Hole in the Head is the second collection of essays in which he illuminates the study of the brain with fascinating episodes from the past. This volume’s tales range from the history of trepanation (drilling a hole in the skull) to neurosurgery as painted by Hieronymus Bosch to the discovery that bats navigate using echolocation.

The emphasis is on blind alleys and errors as well as triumphs and discoveries, with ancient practices connected to recent developments and controversies. Gross first reaches back into the beginnings of neuroscience, then takes up the interaction of art and neuroscience, exploring, among other things, Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson” paintings, and finally, examines discoveries by scientists whose work was scorned in their own time but proven correct in later eras.

Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production

The industrial synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen has been of greater fundamental importance to the modern world than the invention of the airplane, nuclear energy, space flight, or television. The expansion of the world's population from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to today's six billion would not have been possible without the synthesis of ammonia.

In Enriching the Earth, Vaclav Smil begins with a discussion of nitrogen's unique status in the biosphere, its role in crop production, and traditional means of supplying the nutrient. He then looks at various attempts to expand natural nitrogen flows through mineral and synthetic fertilizers. The core of the book is a detailed narrative of the discovery of ammonia synthesis by Fritz Haber—a discovery scientists had sought for over one hundred years—and its commercialization by Carl Bosch and the chemical company BASF. Smil also examines the emergence of the large-scale nitrogen fertilizer industry and analyzes the extent of global dependence on the Haber-Bosch process and its biospheric consequences. Finally, it looks at the role of nitrogen in civilization and, in a sad coda, describes the lives of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch after the discovery of ammonia synthesis.

The Birth of Microphysics

In the mid to late 1890s, J. J. Thomson and colleagues at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory conducted experiments on "cathode rays" (a form of radiation produced within evacuated glass vessels subjected to electric fields)—the results of which some historians later viewed as the "discovery" of the electron. This book is both a biography of the electron and a history of the microphysical world that it opened up.

The book is organized in four parts. The first part, Corpuscles and Electrons, considers the varying accounts of Thomson's role in the experimental production of the electron. The second part, What Was the Newborn Electron Good For?, examines how scientists used the new entity in physical and chemical investigations. The third part, Electrons Applied and Appropriated, explores the accommodation, or lack thereof, of the electron in nuclear physics, chemistry, and electrical science. It follows the electron's gradual progress from cathode ray to ubiquitous subatomic particle and eponymous entity in one of the world's most successful industries—electronics. The fourth part, Philosophical Electrons, considers the role of the electron in issues of instrumentalism, epistemology, and realism. The electron, it turns out, can tell us a great deal about how science works.

Newton studies have undergone radical changes in the last half-century as more of his work has been uncovered and more details of his life and intellectual context have come to light. This volume singles out two strands in recent Newton studies: the intellectual background to Newton's scientific thought and both specific and general aspects of his technical science. The essays make new claims concerning Newton's mathematical methods, experimental investigations, and motivations, as well as the effect that his long presence had on science in England.

The book is divided into two parts. The essays in part I shed new light on Newton's motivations and the sources of his method. The essays in part II explore Newton's mathematical philosophy and his development of rational mechanics and celestial dynamics. An appendix includes the last paper by Newton biographer Richard W. Westfall, examining some of the ways that mathematics came to be used in the age of Newton in pursuits and domains other than theoretical or rational mechanics.

Thomas Bugge, Danish Astronomer Royal, spent six months in France in 1798-99 as his country's delegate to the International Commission on the Metric System, and while there he made a close study of the postrevolutionary scientific and cultural scene. Written up in the form of "letters," these observations were later published as Travels in the French Republic. The present work includes much of this material, some published in English for the first time, the rest unavailable except in a scarce English edition of 1801. The editor's principle of selection has been to include, among others, those sections that relate in particular to the institutions of science in France, and he provides a commentary introducing each section.

The institutions of modern science, and their relation to the state, were to a considerable extent developed or perfected in the France of the First Republic. The conference on the metric system mentioned earlier might be described as the world's first international scientific meeting. Specialized technical schools were being established in numerous fields as whole new technologies were developed. The government, for the first time in history, had begun to support science financially on a large scale and to employ scientists engaged in both military research and "pure" pursuits. Some prominent men of science held positions as ministers of state, while others were highly influential advisers to the government. And in many other ways science matured in this period, taking on the institutional form it retains to this day. There are a number of reasons why the state supported sci- ence so lavishly, among them its desire to expiate for the early excesses of the Revolution, marked by the disbanding of the Academie des sciences and the execution of Lavoisier. Also, science had proved its worth to the military: the work of such men as Monge, Fourcroy, de Morveau, and Berthollet in directing the manufacture of gunpowder and cannon helped stave off an invasion by foreign armies in 1793-94.

Among the institutions of which Bugge gives a detailed account are the Ecole normale, the écoles centrales, the Ecole poly technique; schools for public service including the naval schools, the Ecole d'artillerie, and the Ecole des mines; the schools of medicine and pha~acy; the College de France; the Military Hospital for Instruction, and other medical institutions; the National Institute; the National Observatory and the Board of Longitude; the School of Military Ballooning; the Conservatoire des arts et metiers. Bugge also had interesting comments on the Louvre and the Bibliotheque Nationale.

Other concerns taken up by Bugge and reprinted here are state expenditures on scientific and allied institutions for the year 1799, instruments and instrument makers, steam engines, powder factories, the metric system, and revolutionary festivals.

  •  
  • Page 1 of 8