Duchenne de Boulogne (Sept 17 1806 – Sept 15 1875)

If there is a “father of modern neurology” it would be Duchenne de Bologne, whose work started the field. Though many consider Jean-Marie Charcot its founder, Charcot himself often described de Bologne as his teacher and the true first Neurologist. Talk about bros giving credit.

de Bologne demonstrating muscular contractions on a volunteer, using electric shocks.

Duchenne de Bologne is in my list of unsung heroes because his light is dimmed by Charcot’s and Ramon y Cajal’s, both of which did amazing and important work and are (rightfully) lauded for them.

But there are a few things that remain: his work on muscular dystrophy, while it opened the field to research into so much more, is immortalized in the naming of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, Duchenne-Aran spinal muscular atrophy, Duchenne-Erb paralysis, Duchenne’s disease (Tabes dorsalis), and Duchenne’s paralysis. You’ll probably have heard of at least one of those.

But there is more. He also invented the trocar, a surgical instrument to retrieve fluids or small amounts of tissue. He used it to do the first muscle biopsies.

Then he moved on. Believing that nerves had something to do with electricity that was conducted in them as it was in copper wires (not quite accurate, but pretty astounding for this time), he started to use small currents to activate muscles. While doing so, he not only began to map the path of nerves in the body, he also discovered the difference between afferent and efferent nerve strands, and posited that all nerves met near or at the spinal column, but not all took the trek to the brain and back to have reactions to events (this we know for sure is right) but, instead, reacted to signals from the muscle directly via a “shortcut” near or in the spinal column.

He then set out, to analyze facial expressions and emotions. He was the first to talk about microexpressions, about facial reactions so minute you’d have to not blink to see them, and how the brain used them to mimick the person opposite in order to observe itself and see what a specific reaction might say about the person’s mindset. This theory was long forgotten until it was picked back up in the mid 2000s and has now seen multiple verifications in studies.

And, just on the by-and-by, de Bologne revolutionized how medical photography was used.

“de Bologne Slide” of facial expressions. A new use of photography as a teaching tool in medicine.

And the most metal part about this great man? His name. Duchenne got his “de Boulogne” appendix from his colleagues who were concerned that anyone could confuse him with “Duchesne” a big prick of a self-involved physician in Paris with a star attitude. Duchenne embraced the change (he was born and raised in Boulogne) and published under this name until his death two days before his birthday in 1875.

Duchenne’s downfall in fame was his disposition. He is reported to have been a nice person, calm and friendly, until his wife died shortly after the birth of his son. Focussing on work and showing an increasingly erratic attitude, he estranged from his family and his colleagues, antagonizing senior staff he worked for. This period lasted until long after he started his work and might have contributed heavily to the more jovial and collegial Charcot, his student, receiving most of the credit.

His greatest success, however, might be that after his death he still made massive waves in that he influenced Darwin’s theory of facial expressions (which laid the groundwork for Ekman and others) and taught Charcot, who finalized the field of Neurology into a standing discipline. He also taught himself to draw portraits and did so amazingly well from memory, documenting many facial features caused by muscle contractions. The buccinator and sternocleidomastoid muscles were the first he documented, and they torture students with innervation and action to this day.

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