Charles-Edouard Brown-Séquard

Chris Gilleard
London, United Kingdom


Photograph of Charles-Edouard Brown-Séquard
Charles-Edouard Brown-Séquard

Charles-Edouard Brown-Séquard (1817 -1894) was born on the island of Mauritius, the son of a French-Mauritian lady whose marriage to an American sea captain ended when he was lost at sea while she was pregnant.

She called her son Charles-Edouard Brown after his father. His aspirations to pursue a career in medicine cut short, he left school at age fifteen. Working as a shop assistant, he began to write poetry. Eager to pursue opportunities beyond those in Mauritius, he persuaded his mother to sell up and embark on the sea journey to France. He immediately sent his best work to prominent figures in Paris’ literary world to be told brusquely that he would never succeed as a writer. Disheartened, he burnt his poetry and enrolled in Paris’ Faculty of Medicine. Then, in the middle of his studies, his mother died. Abandoning university, he spent several months wandering disconsolately about France until he was persuaded to return to Mauritius. There he contacted old friends, settled his mother’s affairs, and returned to France to complete his studies.

He then began what would be a lifelong practice of experimenting on himself, and after graduating, turned one of his rooms into an animal laboratory, experimenting on whatever animals he could acquire. During this period he developed his theory about the crossover of nerves in the spinal cord. He also experimented with blood transfusions, injecting his own blood into the body of a recently decapitated prisoner to see if it would cause the stirrings of life. He claimed it did.

The accession of Napoleon III provided him an excuse to leave France and seek fame in his father’s homeland. There he met and married his first wife. The couple sailed to France and shortly after to Mauritius, where he worked selflessly combating the cholera that was devastating the island. Ever the self-experimenter it is said that he swallowed the vomit of cholera victims to test how the disease was transmitted, further risking his life by taking an overdose of laudanum as an antidote. Recovering his health he again set sail for America. He obtained a chair in Experimental Physiology and Medicine in Richmond, Virginia, where he set up a makeshift animal laboratory and continued his researches on the nervous system. He wrote his famous Richmond paper outlining the symptoms arising from lateral hemisection of the spinal cord, known as the Brown-Séquard syndrome.

Dissatisfied with the politics of ante-bellum Virginia, he returned to France and continued the work he had begun at Richmond on the effects of extirpation of the adrenal glands. He thought these glands secreted some substance into the blood that was necessary for circulation – the beginnings of his interest in “internal secretions.” Over the next decade he moved back and forth across the Atlantic, obtaining a position as physician to the newly opened National Hospital in Queen’s Square, London.  This period ended when he was appointed Professor of the Physiology and Pathology of the Nervous System at Harvard, in June, 1864. His sense of achievement did not last. His wife fell ill and died the following September. Over the following years he moved many times between America and Europe, during which time he formulated the idea that injecting semen into old men’s veins might regenerate their intellectual powers.

In 1872 he remarried, only to lose his second wife two years later in the aftermath of childbirth. Moving back to Europe he immersed himself in clinical academia. During a stay in London he met and married his third wife, Emma.  Then, in February 1878 Claude Bernard died. His chair at the Collège de France fell vacant and Brown-Séquard immediately set about gaining French citizenship (he had until then held joint British-US citizenship) before putting himself forward as Bernard’s successor. He was now a famous physiologist, renowned for his work on the nervous system. In August 1878 he was appointed and thereafter acquired many honors, culminating in 1886 with a seat at the Institut de France and Presidency of the Société de Biologie. Then he undertook his most notorious self-experiment, injecting himself with an extract of dog and guinea pig testes. He reported his “rejuvenation” in a series of papers presented at the Société.

The news spread like wildfire. Soon he was caricatured in the press as a quack offering promises of potency to enfeebled old men. He felt – yet again – misrepresented and misunderstood. By 1892 his health deteriorated. Emma became seriously ill and died in January 1894. He felt himself a ruined man, unable to pursue what had always sustained him, his research and his writing. “It’s all over,” he wrote. On April 1, he died. Forever the outsider, he seemed the embodiment of the saying “there is no fool like an old fool.” Only now has his reputation been restored as the leading neurologist of his time and the father-to-be of endocrinology.



CHRIS GILLEARD, PhD, AcSS, has been a visiting research fellow in the Division of Psychiatry, University College London since 2009. Since 1979 he has held a variety of academic and clinical positions in psychology and psychiatry and from 1989 was the Director of Psychology & Psychotherapies for South West London & St. George’s Mental Health NHS Trust. His main research interests have been in the psychiatry and sociology and history of ageing. He has published numerous articles in these fields and has authored and co-authored a number of books on these topics, including Cultures of Ageing (2000) and Ageing, Corporeality and Embodiment (2013).


Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2015 – Volume 7, Issue 2
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