Head on Brain in Brain

by Marc Abrahams, Improbable Research staff

Left: Henry Head, in a photograph taken in 1914 or in some other year, the documentation being unclear.

Nowadays not many people read Brain on Head in Brain. That could change, because this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Russell Brain’s mostly-admiring six-page essay called “Henry Head: A Man and His Ideas,” which celebrated the 100th anniversary of Dr. Head’s birth. Which means that this year we are all of us entitled to celebrate the 150th anniversary of that happy event. Dr. Brain—who was also Lord Brain, Baron Brain of Eynsham—was editor of the journal Brain. It would have been surprising had he not written that essay about Dr. Head. That’s because Head preceded Brain (the man) as head (which is to say, editor) of the journal (the name of which, I repeat for clarity, is Brain). Head headed Brain from 1905 to 1923. Brain became head in 1954, dying in office in 1967. No other editors in the journal’s long history (it was founded in 1879) could or did boast surnames that so stunningly announced their obsession, profession, and place of employ. One of Dr. Brain’s final articles, in 1963, is called “Some Reflections on Brain and Mind.”

“Some Reflections on Brain and Mind,” Lord Brain, Brain, vol. 86, no. 3, 1963, pp. 381-402.

Dr. Head wrote many monographs, some quite lengthy, for Brain. The first, a 135-page behemoth, appeared in 1893, long before he became editor. In it, Dr. Head gives special thanks to a Dr. Buzzard, citing Dr. Buzzard’s generosity, the nature of which is not specified.

Dr. Russell Brain, right.

Reading Dr. Brain’s Brain tribute and other material about Dr. Head, one gets the strong impression that Head had a big head, and that it was stuffed full of knowledge, which Dr. Head was not shy about sharing. Brain writes that “Some men… feel impelled to impart information to others. Head was one of those.” Brain then quotes Professor H.M. Turnbull as saying:

I had the good fortune when first going to the hospital to meet daily in the mornings, on the steam engine underground railway, Dr. Henry Head. He… kindly taught me throughout our journeys about physical signs, much to the annoyance of our fellow travellers; indeed in his characteristic keenness he spoke so loudly that as we walked to the hospital from St. Mary’s station people on the other side of the wide Whitechapel Road would turn to look at us.

Brain says that Head “would illustrate his lectures by himself reproducing the involuntary movements or postures produced by nervous disease, and ‘Henry Head doing gaits’ was a perennial attraction.”

In 1904, at the age of 42, Head married a headmistress: Ruth Mayhew of Brighton High School for Girls. Brain assures us that she was “a fit companion for him in intelligence.” Brain, though respectful of Head, suggests that his predecessor may have been over-brainy: “He had many ideas: he bubbled over with them, and perhaps he was sometimes too ready to convince himself of their truth”.

Head’s Heady Experiment, in (of course) Brain Head’s most nervy experiment involved (although not exclusively) his penis, about which he presented a surprising amount of detail, in a lengthy monograph in Brain, helping to enliven a new century.

“A Human Experiment in Nerve Division,” W.H.R. Rivers and Henry Head, Brain, vol. 31, no. 3, 1908, pp. 323–450.

Henry Head, in a photograph taken in or near 1914, left.

The account is too lengthy to reproduce here, except for the following snippets:

We then discovered that the glans penis responded to cutaneous stimuli in that peculiar manner with which we were already familiar from our study of the first stage of recovery after nerve division. On turning to von Frey’s account of the glans penis ([9] p. 175) we found a brilliant description of a part endowed with protopathic and deep sensibility only. We can add nothing material to this remarkable description, but shall attempt to show how exactly in the case of H. the response of this organ to cutaneous stimuli corresponds to that of the highly protopathic area, which remains on the back of his hand…. [An] interrupted current almost painless on the normal skin causes an aching, tingling sensation over the glans which is extremely unpleasant. The characteristic “whirring” sensation is absent and is replaced by a slowly increasing diffused pain. The most remarkable peculiarities are shown in the behaviour of the glans to heat and cold. In the case of H., there appear to be no heatspots except in the neighbourhood of the corona; the body and tip of the glans are entirely insensitive to heat. But cold- spots abound and paradox-cold can be as easily evoked… We therefore made a number of observations in the following manner. The foreskin was drawn back, and the penis allowed to hang downwards. A number of drinking glasses were prepared containing water at different temperatures. H. stood with his eyes closed, and R. gradually approached one of the glasses until the surface of the water covered the glans but did not touch the foreskin. Contact with the fluid was not appreciated; if, therefore, the temperature of the water was such that it did not produce a sensation of heat or cold, H. was unaware that anything had been done…

1923—A Brain- and Brain-filled Year of Lasts and Firsts

The year 1923 was a historic year for Head and for Brain, and one could argue, especially for Brain. First, Brain’s first article in Brain appeared. Though brief, it was and remains one of the few well-regarded medical studies that includes the phrase “cracked-pot” in its title:

“Clinical Meeting Held May 10, 1923: Case of Right Frontal Tumour; Cracked-pot Percussion Note over Right Frontal Bone; Left Palmar Reflex,” Dr. George Riddoch and Dr. Russell Brain, Brain, vol. 46, no. 2, 1923, p. 246.

Then, just months later, came Head’s last article in Brain:

“Speech and Cerebral Localization,” Henry Head, Brain, vol. 46, no. 4, 1923, pp. 355–528.

Thus there was a brief but documented period in which both Head, as head, and Brain, headed to eventually become head, were officially part of Brain.

References and Notes

The full citation for Brain on Head in Brain is: “Henry Head: The Man and His Ideas,” Russell Brain, Brain, vol. 84, no. 4, December 1961, pp. 561–6. The title of Head’s first article in Brain alluded only indirectly to the head and brain:

“On Disturbances of Sensation with Especial Reference to the Pain of Visceral Disease,” Henry Head, Brain, vol. 16, nos. 1-2, 1893, pp. 1-133. Brain itself eventually produced a small essay about Head and Brain and other editors of Brain.

“Editorial,” Alastair Compston, Brain, vol. 127, 2004, pp. 1689–90.


This article is republished with permission from the September-October 2009 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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