Open main menu

American Medical Biographies/Brown-Séquard, Charles Edward

Brown-Séquard, Charles Edward (1817–1894)

This great and original "savant," cosmopolite physiologist and physician who taught in England, America and France, Charles Edward Brown-Séquard was born at Port Louis, Mauritius, April 8, 1817, the posthumous son of Edward Brown (a Philadelphian), captain in the merchant service. His mother's family, the Séquards, had been for some years settled in the Isle of France and as his father was Irish the lad inherited a large amount of vivacity, and it is easy to imagine his routine work as clerk in a store was soon thrown up. His mother in 1838 went to Paris and kept her son at his medical studies by taking in some students, also Mauritians, but she died soon after and Brown affixed her maiden name to his own. In 1846 he was admitted M. D. at Paris with a thesis on "Researches and Experiments on the Physiology of the Spinal Cord." In 1849 he was auxiliary physician under Baron Larrey at the military hospital of Gros Caillou during an outbreak of cholera.

During these years he had a hard fight with poverty but devoted himself to physiology and on the foundation of the Société de Biologie became one of the four secretaries.

The political troubles of 1852 made him fear the consequences of his own republicanism and he sailed for New York where he taught French, attended obstetric cases at $5.00 each, and married an American woman, with whom and a baby son he returned to France the year following, to stay only one year, for he seems to have had touches of travel fever leading him to go to Mauritius to practice. There was just then an outbreak of cholera in the island and Brown-Séquard helped in its suppression.

His next journey, in 1855, was as long as the title he was asked to assume—professor of the institutes of medicine and medical jurisprudence at the Virginia Medical College in Richmond, Virginia.

But the duties were uncongenial, or fortune was tossing him about until she had landed him in the fittest position. At any rate he was soon back in Paris, where he rented with Charles Robin a small laboratory in the Rue St. Jacques and taught students who afterward did honor to their master. In 1858 his lectures on the physiology and pathology of the central nervous system attracted universal attention and when next year the National Hospital for the Paralyzed and Epileptic was opened in Queen Square, London, he was chosen physician. Four years of this and special practice wore him out and he came again to America, this time as professor of physiology and pathology of the nervous system at Harvard (1864–1867). Four years later his first wife, Ellen Fletcher, a niece of Daniel Webster, died leaving him one son. He went once more to his beloved Paris where, as co-editor with Vulpian and Charcot of the Archives de Physiologic Normale et Pathologique, and as professor of comparative and experimental pathology in the faculty of medicine he achieved a brilliant success. In 1872 he was again in America, settled as a New York physician and married to another American, Maria R. Carlisle of Cincinnati, who died in 1874, by whom he had one daughter. Three years later he left for London, then on to Paris and Geneva to be in the last town professor of physiology, and marrying there his third wife, an English woman, Mrs. Elizabeth Emma Dakin, widow of T. Doherty, an artist. She died in 1894, and he only survived her three months and died of an apoplectic seizure April 1, 1894, in his flat, 19 Rue Francois Premier, Paris.

In 1878, when his friend and rival Claude Bernard died, Brown-Séquard succeeded him as professor of experimental medicine in the College of France; the honor he coveted most, the presidency of the Société de Biologie, fell to him in 1887.

All his life he devoted himself to the experimental study of the most recondite parts of physiology. Money and position, a professorship in Virginia, a fashionable practice in London, and an assured income in New York were reckoned as nothing when found incompatible with his life's work. Horace Bianchon, writing of him, says, "his bronzed face, long white hair, and feverish alertness gave him the appearance of an old imaginative Canadian." His mind was always working and inventing and notes were jotted down haphazard on newspaper wrappers, margins of books, and old envelopes of which he had a whole cupboardful in his room.

"He Was chiefly concerned with the properties and functions of the nervous system. He traced the origin of the sympathetic nerve fibers into the spinal cord and was the first to show that epilepsy could be produced experimentally in guinea-pigs. With Claude Bernard he shares the honor of demonstrating the existence of vasomotor nerves. From June, 1889, he was much interested in the secretion of certain glands; his conclusions, not generally accepted, will probably be found to contain the germs of further advances in physiology."

His chief characteristic was entire devotion to science, the warmth of his affections, his almost superhuman activity. Money, honors, positions counted as nothing to him except as a means to develop science and assist young scientists. The laboratory had more interest than the consulting-room, and it was only when in need of funds to carry on experiments that he attended patients. He was forever rushing hither and thither, to the United States, to France, to England, back to Mauritius, writing, lecturing, experimenting, making warm friends everywhere, notably Agassiz, Sumner, Longfellow in the United States, often fighting for his theories against unbelief and opposition, at other times lifted high on the tide of popularity, as when for instance he helped to stamp out an epidemic of cholera in Port Louis and his compatriots presented him with a gold medal in token of their gratitude. Owing to his strong opinions he went through many upheavals that accounted for his restless and unsettled life.

His writings, of which there is no full list, are chiefly in the Journal de la Physiologie Normale de l'Homme et des Animaux; Bulletin de la Societe de Biologie; Archives de Physiologie Normal et Pathologique; Archives of Scientific and Practical Medicine and Surgery; The Philadelphia Medical Examiner, 1853, and in London and New York medical journals. In 1858 he established at his own cost the Journal de la Physiologie Normale de l'Homme et des Animaux and in 1861 was elected fellow of the Royal Society, delivered the Croonian lecture on the "Relation between Muscular Irritability, Cadaveric Rigidity and Putrefaction." The Archives of Scientific and Practical Medicine, in which he published his first article on Inhibition, was founded by him in 1874.

In 1856 appeared articles on the functions of the suprarenal capsules. A series of papers which came out in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, 1857, were published in a book entitled "Researches in Epilepsy, its Artificial Production in Animals, its Etiology, its Nature, and its Treatment in Man."

A course of "Lectures on the Physiology and Pathology of the Central Nervous System," given at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, May, 1858, was published in Philadelphia, 1860, after appearing in The Lancet in London.

Lectures on the "Diagnosis and Treatment of the Principal Forms of Paralysis of the Lower Extremities," also lectures on the "Diagnosis and Treatment of the Various Forms of Paralytic, Convulsive and Mental Affections considered as Effects of Morbid Alterations of the Blood or of the Brain or of Other Organs," being a combination of the "Gulstonian Lectures" delivered at the Royal College of Physicians, London, 1861, and clinical lectures delivered at the National Hospital for the Paralyzed and Epileptic. In 1868 there appeared in Philadelphia "Lectures on the Diagnosis and Treatment of Functional Nervous Affections."

During 1875–76 he delivered lectures in Dublin and other places on "Anesthesia, Amaurosis and Aphasia caused by Lesions of the Brain," and at the Royal College of Physicians, London, on the "Pathological Physiology of the Brain."

In 1878 he began his course at the Collège de France. From then to the time of his death the Archives de Physiologie, the reports of the "Académie des Sciences," and of the "Société de Biologie" contained the results of his researches "On the Physiology of the Blood-corpuscles," "On Cadaveric Rigidity" and "Muscular Contractions," "On the Influence of Carbonic Acid" and "On the Noxious Effects of Expired Air, Effects Distinct from Those of Carbonic Acid."

In 1889 Brown-Séquard began his experiments "on the internal secretion of glands," and descriptions of his new therapeutic method of subcutaneous injections of organic liquids appeared in the above-mentioned journals and reports.

Among many other papers one may cite the article "Epilepsy" in Quain's "Dictionary of Medicine," and an article in the Forum, New York, 1892, on "Have We Two Brains or One?"

Many honors and appointments came to him. He was one time lecturer before the Royal College of Surgeons of England on the physiology and pathology of the nervous system and Gulstonian lecturer before the Royal College of Physicians, London, and fellow of the faculty of physicians and surgeons, Glasgow. He received the honorary LL.D. from Cambridge University, England, the Lacaze prize from the French Académie des Sciences, and from the same body in 1885 the "grand prix biennal" which elected him member in place of Vulpian. The Royal College of Physicians, London, presented him with the Baly medal in 1886.

From a personal communication from his daughter Mrs. Bolton McCausland.
Dict. of Nat. Biog., Dr. D'Arcy Powell
Archives de Physiologic Normale et Pathologique, Dr. E. Gley. 5th series, vol. vi.
Comptes Rendus de la Société de Biol., 1894.
Nos Grands Medécins, H. Bianchon, 1891.
Lancet, 1894, vol. I, p. 1391.
The Life of Brown-Séquard, Monsieur Berthelot.
Paper read before the Acad. des Sciences, Dec. 19, 1898.
There is a portrait in the town hall, Port Louis, Island of Mauritius, by Serudat de Belzian.