7 epic historical rivalries that shaped neuroscience

I admit I have a keen interest in rivalries. I think they reveal something primal about the human psyche. Nothing beats professional conflicts in their sheer intensity, and the scientific world is particularly rife with fierce duels and petty jealousies. And the main driver for these squabbles, often prolonged and bruising, is the ambition to be recognised as the first and the best. And the fuel is often the tempting allure of a juicy patent, and perhaps a Nobel prize to boot. Some scientific feuds are legendary, such as the one between Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke, or the one between electricity giants Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison.

By RollieBOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Coming closer home, the medical world has had, and continues to have, its share of rivalries. A look back at different stages of history reveals virulent feuds such as the one between polio vaccine pioneers Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, the HIV rivalry between Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier. , and the endocrinology rivalry between Roger Guillamine and Andrew Schally. We can look even further back to the conflict between medical microbiologists Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur, or the wars between cardiac surgery giants Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley.


By Hisland7Own work, Public Domain, Link

How has the field of neuroscience fared in the duelling arena? Here are our 7 epic historical rivalries that shaped neuroscience.

1. Wilder Penfield versus Francis Walshe

This is not a huge controversy, but there is enough hurt ego to class it a rivalry. Wilder Penfield, the brilliant neurosurgeon, was instrumental to mapping the representation of the motor and sensory cortex, defining the homonculus. He did this through his experiments during awake surgery for people with intractable epilepsy at the prestigous Canadian Neurological Institute. Francis Walshe, neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery was, to say the least, unimpressed by Penfield’s surgical approach. And he said so to Penfield’s hearing at an Anglo-American Symposium which held in London. The controversy also played out in a series of letters between the two. But it is possible the rivalry goes further back in time; they probably never took to each other when they both trained under the great neurologist Gordon Holmes. And at the heart of the matter is the disdain with which neurologists regarded neurosurgeons at that time. How the tide has changed.

By Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of the Interior – http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/mt/blm_programs/whb.Par.51951.Image.-1.-1.1.gif, Public Domain, Link

2. Sigmund Freud versus Carl Jung

These are two of the leading figures in psychoanalysis. The older Sigmund Freud, and the younger Carl Jung, liked each other at the outset…until their scientific theories about the nature of the unconscious made them rivals. This resulted in the two distinct Jungian and Freudian concepts. Some go as far as to argue that sex and race were also driving their rivalry. Whatever the reasons, things got very heated with Freud claiming Jung wanted him dead. How much worse could a rivalry get?

Two Stallions Fighting Spanner Sculpture. Bushie on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bushie/4083544951

3. Jean-Martin Charcot versus Charles Bouchard

The French Neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot is considered by many to be the father of modern neurology. Charles Bouchard on the other hand was a student of Charcot. Things fell apart between the two as soon as Bouchard became a professor. No Nobel prizes at stake here-their feud revolved around a brutal struggle for power and influence. Even though Bouchard got the upper hand, history hasn’t remembered him as well as it has Charcot. Just by the way, Charcot may have also had a simmering rivalry with Jules Joseph Dejerine! I am not quite sure what that says about the personalities at the crucible of neurology.

Fight of the Metal Stallions 4-15. Don Graham on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/23155134@N06/26855754985/

4. Vladimir Bekhterev versus Ivan Pavlov

Vladimir Bekhterev is not a household name, but the Russian neurologist is instrumental to defining the role of the hippocampus in memory, and indeed has an eponymous non-neurological disease known as Ankylosing spondylitis. Bekhterev had a simmering conflict with his fellow countryman and physiologist Ivan Pavlov. And this had to do, unsurprisingly, with their rather similar theories of conditioned reflexes. It did not help that they both had “oversized and confrontational personalities“. This is one rivalry that blew out of all proportions, spilling into open enmity.

Horse Fight. Sam Howzit on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/aloha75/4024092009

5. Camillo Golgi versus Santiago Ramon y Cajal

This rivalry is between two people who shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1906. It was at the prize-giving ceremony that the Italian anatomist Camillo Golgi maliciously shredded his co-recipient, the Spanish Santiago Ramon y Cajal. The stakes in this rivalry were very high for neuroscience, as it concerned the fundamental structure of the nervous system. Golgi originally developed the staining method which made neurones visible, but Cajal refined and improved it. He then went on to demonstrate that neurones do not form seamless interconnected cells, firing in all directions, as Golgi argued. Rather, he found neurones to be individual cells firing in one direction. Cajal’s neuron doctrine was the eventual winner in this one.

By Albert de Balleroy – http://www.latribunedelart.com/spip.php?page=docbig&id_document=11895, Public Domain, Link

 6. Ambroise Pare versus Andreas Vesalius

This is a rivalry that played out in royalty. The French surgeon Ambroise Pare was already recognised for refining the treatment of battlefield wounds and amputations. And he later became the official surgeon to King Henry. The Spanish Andreas Vesalius, on the other hand, had established his fame with human anatomy, and he was the official physician to King Philip. His defining work is the highly regarded De Humani Corporis Fabrica. In this very scientific rivalry, devoid of ego, the two giants explored their different approaches to the diagnosis and treatment of head injury. And their vehicle for this was the fatal head injury sustained by King Henri during a jousting tournament. Pare’s countercoup injury theory won the day at post-mortem.

By George Stubbshere / здесь, Public Domain, Link

 7. Paul Broca versus Marc Dax

This is a rivalry between two giants of French neuroscience, and it is all about who got there first. Localisation of speech and language to the left hemisphere is now generally attributed to the work of Paul Broca. In recognition of this, the brain’s speech area, area 44, is named after Broca. By some accounts however, there was another pretender to the throne in the form of Marc Dax. It is argued that Dax sent his paper for publication six weeks before Broca published his. And it is even whispered that the establishment connived to delay publishing Dax’s paper, to the advantage of Broca. After his death, Dax’s son, Gustave, tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to convince French Academy of Sciences and to the French Academy of Medicine to acknowledge his father. Some are arguing that Broca and Dax should share the recognition, calling for the theory of lateralisation of language to be renamed ‘the theory of Dax-Broca‘.

By Hendrik Hondius I (Flanders, Duffel, 1573-circa 1649) – Image: http://collections.lacma.org/sites/default/files/remote_images/piction/ma-31723256-O3.jpgGallery: http://collections.lacma.org/node/234686 archive copy at the Wayback Machine (archived on 22 January 2019), Public Domain, Link


Undoubtedly similar rivalries are still playing out today, but perhaps in a more restrained way. As the low lying fruit have all been picked, current squabbles are frequently banal. But they are not always harmless as indicated by the St George’s Hospital heart unit feud. But healthy rivalries help the progress of science, pushing the competing rivals to better refine and defend their theories.


By Giuseppe Castiglionehttp://theme.npm.edu.tw/npmawards/langshining/pages/giuseppecastiglione/ch/page-4.html#main, Public Domain, Link

You may explore more rivalries in the following sources I used for this blog post:

Do you have any rivalries to share? Please drop a comment!

4 thoughts on “7 epic historical rivalries that shaped neuroscience

  1. So very interesting! As a patient with wacky wonky neuro problems I can testify that the battles continue. Twixt the 5 neurologists I’ve seen in the past 12 years at least 3 have assured me that all of the others are idiots.


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