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, and the HIV rivalry between Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier. We can look even back further 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!

18 most insightful and profound quotations about the brain

Benjamin Disreali, the two-time British Prime Minister, is quoted to say The wisdom of the wise, and the experience of ages, may be preserved by quotation”. Joseph Roux, the French poet, describes ‘a fine quotation’ as ‘a diamond in the hand of a man of wit, and a pebble in the hand of a fool”.

By Alessandro AntonelliOwn work, Public Domain, Link

Many have put their wisdom and wit to the task of capturing the beauty and complexity of the brain. And they have used the most illuminating of words which have achieved the status of quotable quotes. Over the last few years I have etched some of these quotations in marble, and circulated them via social media. Here I bring together 18 most insightful and profound brain quotations, sculptured by those who should know a thing or two about the brain: neuroscientists, astronomers, and literary greats. Enjoy, and click to see them in their original tweet.



















NB: Many of the quotations used in this blog post were sourced from brainyquotes.com.

The “Library”. Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/4692180679

15 more creative and catchy neurology headlines for 2019

Regular visitors to this blog know that we love catchy article titles. It is always heartwarming to see how some authors create imaginative and inventive headlines. This skill involves the ability to play with words, and the capacity to be double-edged. This is why this blog keeps a lookout for fascinating neurology titles. And in line with this tradition, and in no particular order of inventiveness, here are 15 more catchy neurology titles!

By Andrikkos – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33725735

15. Who do they think we are? Public perceptions of psychiatrists and psychologists

This paper, for some unfathomable reason, set out to ask if the public knows the difference between what psychiatrists and psychologists actually do. And the authors discovered that “there is a lack of clarity in the public mind about our roles”. More worryingly, or reassuringly (depending on your perspective), they also found out that “psychologists were perceived as friendlier and having a better rapport“. Not earth-shattering discoveries, but what a great title!

By Laurens van Lieshout – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2059674

14. OCT as a window to the MS brain: the view becomes slightly clearer

Optical coherence tomography (OCT) is a cool tool which measures the thickness of the retinal fiber layer (RFL). And it has the habit of popping its head up in many neurological specialties. In this case, the specialty is multiple sclerosis, and the subject is how OCT influences its diagnosis and surveillance. Surely a window into the brain is easier to achieve than one into the soul.

Optical coherence tomography of my retina. Brewbooks on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/brewbooks/8463332137

13. A little man of some importance 

The homonculus is the grotesque representation of the body on the surface or cortex of the brain. This paper reviews how formidable neurosurgeons such as Wilder Penfield worked out the disproportionate dimensions of this diminutive but influential man. He (always a man for some reason) has giant hands, a super-sized mouth, very small legs, and a miniature trunk. The clever brain doesn’t readily allocate its resources to large body parts that perform no complex functions! But be warned, this article is no light-weight reading!

The Homunculus in Crystal Palace (Moncton). Mark Blevis on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/electricsky/1298772544

12. Brain-focussed ultrasound: what’s the “FUS” all about? 

This title is a play on words around MR-guided focussed ultrasound surgery (MRgFUS), an emerging technique for treating disorders such as essential tremor and Parkinson’s disease (PD). This review looks at the controversial fuss that this technique has evoked.

By Luis Lima89989 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19162929

11. The Masks of Identities: Who’s Who? Delusional Misidentification Syndromes

This paper explores the interesting subject of delusional misidentification syndromes (DMSs). The authors argue that few concepts in psychiatry can be as confusing as DMSs. And they did an excellent job of clearing our befuddlement around delusions such as Capgras and Fregoli. Very apt title, very interesting read.

no identity. HaPe-Gera on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/hape_gera/2929195528


10. Waking up to sleeping sickness.

This title belongs to a review of trypanosomiasis, aka sleeping sickness. It is a superb play on words, one that evokes several levels of meaning. It is simple and yet complex at the same time. Great imagination.


09. Brains and Brawn: Toxoplasma Infections of the Central Nervous System and Skeletal Muscle

This paper discusses two parts of nervous system that are affected by toxoplasmosis. Playing on the symbolic  contradiction between intellect and strength, the authors show how toxoplasmosis is an ecumenical abuser: it metes out the same fate to both brain and brawn.

Brain vs. Brawn. Yau Hoong Tang on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/tangyauhoong/4474921735

08. Shedding light on photophobia

A slightly paradoxical title this one. Ponder on it just a little more! And then explore the excellent paper shedding light on a condition that is averse to light.

Photophobia (light sensitivity). Joana Roja on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/cats_mom/2772386028/

07. No laughing matter: subacute degeneration of the spinal cord due to nitrous oxide inhalation

Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, is now “the seventh most commonly used recreational drug”. But those who pop it do so oblivious of the risk of subacute combined degeneration. This damage to the upper spinal cord results from nitrous oxide-induced depletion of Vitamin B1 (thiamine). Not a laughing matter at all!

Empty Laughing Gas Canisters. Promo Cymru on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/promocymru/18957223365

06. To scan or not to scan: DaT is the question

Dopamine transport (DaT) scan is a useful brain imaging tests that helps to support the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and other disorders which disrupt the dopamine pathways in the brain. It is particularly helpful in ruling out mimics of Parkinson’s disease such as essential tremor. When to request a DaT scan is however a tricky question in practice. This paper, with its Shakespearean twist, looks at the reliability of DaT scans.

Dopamine. John Lester on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pathfinderlinden/211882099

05. TauBI or not TauBI: what was the question?

It should be no surprise if Shakespeare rears his head more than once in this blog post. Not when the wordsmith is such a veritable source of inspiration for those struggling to invent catchy titles. This paper looks at taupathy, a neurodegeneration as tragic as Hamlet. It particularly comments on an unusual taupathy, one induced by traumatic brain injury. Curious.

By Lafayette Photo, London – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID cph.3g06529.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, Link

04. Mind the Brain: Stroke Risk in Young Adults With Coarctation of the Aorta

What better way to call attention to a serious complication than a catchy title like this one. This paper highlights the neurological complications of coarctation of the aorta, a serious congenital cardiovascular disease. And the key concerns here are the risks of stroke and cerebral aneurysms. Cardiologists, mind the brain!

Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=803943

03. Diabetes and Parkinson disease: a sweet spot?

This paper reviews the unexpected biochemical links between diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. And this relationship is assuming a rather large dimension. Why, for example, are there so many insulin receptors in the power house of Parkinson’s disease, the substantia nigra? A sweet curiosity.

Insulin bubble. Sprogz on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sprogz/5606839532

02. PFO closure for secondary stroke prevention: is the discussion closed?

The foraman ovale is a physiological hole-in-the-heart which should close up once a baby is born. A patent foramen ovale (PFO) results when this hole refuses to shut up. PFOs enable leg clots to traverse the heart and cause strokes in the brain. This paper reviews the evidence that surgically closing PFOs prevents stroke. Common sense says it should, but science demands proof. And the authors assert that they have it all nicely tied up. Hmmm.

By Kjetil Lenes – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3705964

01. Closure of patent foramen ovale in “cryptogenic” stroke: Has the story come to an end?

Not to be beaten in the catchy title race is another brilliant PFO review article. Why do I feel the answer here is ‘no’? This is science after all.