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One of 19th century's most famous patients is identified

human brain
Wikimedia Commons
Human brain with Broca's area highlighted in yellow.

Details about the life of one of neuroscience’s most famous patients have finally emerged — more than 150 years after his death.

Pierre Broca
Wikimedia Commons
Pierre Broca

The patient is the man whose autopsied brain was used by 19th-century French surgeon Pierre Broca to identify a particular area of the left frontal lobe as essential for human speech.

After this groundbreaking discovery, which Broca announced in 1861, scientists began to think of the brain differently — as made up of different regions that support different functions. Broca’s finding thus set the stage for modern neuroscience and neuropsychology.

Broca went on to become a celebrated figure in brain research — and in science history. To this day, the region of the frontal lobe he identified as connected with speech is still known as “Broca’s area,” and the speech problems that develop from an injury to that area are known as “Broca’s aphasia.”

But almost nothing has been known about the man’s whose brain Broca studied to make his great discovery. Broca referred to him only as “Monsieur Leborgne” or by the nickname, “Tan,” which was the only syllable the man could articulate after he lost his ability to speak. The lack of personal information about “Monsieur Leborgne” has led to much speculation over the years — that he was poor and illiterate, for example, or that he had suffered from syphilis.

Broca’s holding back of the patient’s identity was unusual. Personal details about patients featured in case-study reports were not commonly hidden until the 20th century. For example, Phineas Gage, the railway worker who suffered major damage to his frontal lobe in 1848 when a metal rod was driven through his skull and brain, was fully identified by the doctor who treated and later wrote about him.

A life full of health problems

Thanks to some dogged research by developmental psychologist and medical historian Cezary Domanski of the Maria Curie-Sklodowdka University in Poland, we now have a fuller biographical sketch of “Monsieur Leborgne.” He was born Louis Victor Leborgne on July 21, 1809, in the French town of Moret. He was the son of a teacher (and, thus, unlikely to have been illiterate).

Here are more of the details, as reported by Domanksi last week in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences:

The health problems of Louis Victor Leborgne became apparent during his youth, when he suffered the first fits of epilepsy. Although epileptic, Louis Victor Leborgne was a working person. He lived in Paris, in the third district. His profession is given as “formier” (a common description in the nineteenth century used for craftsmen who produced forms for shoemakers).

Leborgne worked until the age of 30 when the loss of speech occurred. It is not known if the damage to the left side of Leborgne’s brain had anything to do with traumas sustained during fits of epilepsy nor, as reported in some recent publications, does it appear to have been caused by syphilis, as that was not indicated in Broca’s reports. The immediate cause for his hospitalization was his problem with communicating.

Leborgne was admitted to the Bicêtre hospital two or three months after losing his ability to speak. Perhaps at first this might have been perceived as a temporary loss, but the defect proved incurable. Because Leborgne was unmarried, he could not be released to be cared for by close relatives; he therefore spent the rest of his life (21 years total) in the hospital. …

After 10 years of hospitalization, further medical conditions developed, including the gradual paralysis of the limbs on his right side and impairment of movement, which eventually caused him to be bedridden for the last seven years of his life.

Leborgne eventually developed gangrene in his paralyzed limbs, and was transferred to a surgical hospital, where he died on April 17, 1861, at 11 a.m. Broca met him while working at that hospital.

Time ‘to regain his identity’

Domanski notes, rather poignantly, that “the memory of the disease and cause of death of 'Monsieur Leborgne' proved far more enduring than the story of his life, which was deemed irrelevant even when the patient was still alive.”

“It is time,” he adds, “for Louis Victor Leborgne to regain his identity, as his case formed one of the milestones in the history of modern medicine.”

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