Controversial ‘father’ of endocrinology: Brown-Séquard
His ideas on internal secretion led to discovery of thyroid extract, secretin, parathyroid extract, antidiuretic hormone and growth hormone.
Charles-Edouard Brown-Séquard was one of the most respected physicians of his time. He held professional posts in the United States, England and France and was elected to prestigious scientific academies in those countries: The Royal Society, The National Academy of Sciences of the United States and the Academie des Sciences. He founded and edited three medical journals, published nine books and produced over 500 scientific papers.
However, an experiment conducted and presented to the medical world late in his life would make him both famous and infamous, overshadowing much of the pioneering contributions he made to neurology and scarring the field of endocrinology with illegitimacy from its start.
A diverse man
Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Tompkins-McCaw Library, Virginia Commonwealth University.
Brown-Séquard was born in 1818 in Mauritius, a British colony. He could claim nationality in the United States because of his father, Edward Brown, an American sea caption; in France, because of his mother Charlotte Séquard; and in Britain, because of his birthplace.
Born after his father’s death, Brown-Séquard was raised by his mother in modest circumstances. At 21, he moved to Paris where he hoped to have a literary career. After a series of unsuccessful attempts at a writing career, he decided instead to earn his medical degree, which he completed in 1846 with a thesis on physiology of the spinal cord.
Much of his early career was devoted to experimental and clinical neurology. He is credited with developing the idea that the action of the central nervous system depends on the networking of functions localized to corresponding areas of the brain.
In addition, he was a pioneer in epilepsy: He was one of the first physicians to advocate bromides in the treatment of the disease, and he was one of the original staff members of the National Hospital for the Paralyzed and Epileptics at Queen’s Square.
In 1849, he published his most famous work in neurology, suggesting that lateral hemisection caused ipsilateral hyperaesthesia. This would become known as the Brown-Séquard effect.
Brown-Séquard’s interest in internal secretion of glands was stimulated by Thomas Addison’s monograph on the suprarenal glands, a topic of wide discussion in Paris in 1855.
A year later, Brown-Séquard made his first major contribution to the field of endocrinology, when he reported to the Academy of Sciences in Paris that the removal of both adrenal glands from animals was fatal. During his experiments, he was able to prolong life for short periods by injecting adrenal extracts into the animals. He continued to explore the function of certain organs and internal secretions throughout the following decades.
Unlike many prominent physicians of his time, Brown-Séquard’s research was conducted at a number of institutions throughout his career. Although considered energetic in his work, periods of depression would frequently prompt Brown-Séquard to move, often to another country. Between 1853 and 1878, he reportedly crossed the Atlantic approximately 60 times, living in England once, France six times, and the United States four times. He finally retired in Paris in 1878 where he remained until his death in 1894.
In June 1889, at the age of 72, he made his most famous presentation about a series of rejuvenation experiments to the Societe de Biologie. He claimed that daily injections of testicular blood, seminal fluid, and testicular extract from guinea pigs and dogs made him feel 30 years younger. He told the audience, whose average age was 71, that with the use of these injections he was able to lift heavier weights than before, work for hours after dinner, and run up and down steps.
His presentation made a huge impact on the medical community. Despite much criticism and ridicule of Brown-Séquard and his conclusions, both the medical and popular press publicized his conclusions.
In the coming years, a number of researchers began studying the internal secretion of glands, eventually labeled organotherapy or The Method of Brown-Séquard. Despite all of the criticism, within a short time about 12,000 physicians were using Brown-Séquard’s “fluid.” By 1893, more than 1,300 physicians had tried to use organ extracts to treat a diverse number of disorders. After years of trying to duplicate his results, the medical community concluded the placebo effect had probably rejuvenated Brown-Séquard, not the combination of fluids.
His intuition about internal secretions, however, had been correct and inspired other physicians to explore the topic. That subsequent research led to discovery of thyroid extract to treat myxedema as well as discovery of secretin, parathyroid extract, antidiuretic hormone, growth hormone and more.
Although many physicians credit Brown-Séquard as the father of endocrinology, the field was initially labeled “quackery” and not “serious medicine.” It would not be until 1921 and the discovery of insulin that endocrinology would begin to gain respect within the medical community. – by Leah Lawrence
For more information:
- Brown-Séquard C. The effects produced on man by subcutaneous injections of a liquid obtained from the testicles of animals. Lancet. 1889;2:105-107.
- Haas LF. Charles Edouard Brown-Séquard (1818-1894). J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1998;64:89.
- Tattersall R, Turner B. Brown-Séquard and his syndrome. Lancet. 2000;356:61-63.
- Wilson JD. Charles-Edouard Brown Séquard and the centennial of endocrinology. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1990;71:1403-9.