02 June 2009

David Ferrier and the Cortical Localization of Cerebral Function

Among the many discoveries of late-nineteenth century physiology, one that certainly ranks very high is David Ferrier’s research on the cerebral localisation of function, the principle that specific areas of the brain are associated with specific behaviours. Celebrated for its demonstration of the scientific basis of phrenology, condoned for its practical implications, no doubt instrumental in ushering in the animal rights movement, and part of a gripping human story of priority disputes, Ferrier’s research possesses all of the ingredients of a fantastic tale.

David Ferrier (1843-1928) was the sixth child of Hannah and David Ferrier. He attended Aberdeen Grammar School and then studied classics and philosophy under Alexander Bain at Aberdeen University. Bain, an enormous intellectual influence on Ferrier, suggested that he pursue a year abroad studying physiological psychology. Germany was then, as sociologist Joseph Ben-David has observed, the pre-eminent location for this field of inquiry, and Ferrier accordingly took up residence there for a time at the University of Heidelberg. Following his wanderjahr, Ferrier returned to Scotland where he completed his medical degree in 1868. Following a brief residency under Thomas Laycock, Ferrier completed his MD – an advanced medical degree in Britain – and was appointed lecturer in physiology at the Middlesex Hospital in London. The following year he was appointed to King’s College, where he remained the remainder of his career.

At about the time that Ferrier was completing his medical degree, Gustav Fritsch (1838-1927) and Eduard Hitzig (1838-1907) demonstrated that muscle movements in the body of a dog could be stimulated by the direct application of electricity to its brain. This was an important discovery. Few had hitherto believed in the electro-excitability of brain tissue. Hitzig and Fritsch’s research suggested that the popular view was wrong. Ferrier, perhaps excited by these findings, began shortly thereafter analysing whether stimulation of specific areas of the brain might lead to repeatable motor behaviours in the living animal body.

Invited for a time to the West Riding Asylum in Wakefield by his friend James Crichton-Browne – himself an arch monist – Ferrier began conducting his research there. His findings, according to historian Samuel Greenblatt, quickly suggested that electrical stimulation of different portions of the brain could evoke movements in the limbs of animals. This work suggested that there were centers in the brain that might be devoted specifically to certain motor functions, an idea then also promulgated by Paul Broca, a French anthropologist, who had noted that lesions in the same area of the brain seemed constantly associated with the impairment of speech.

The early context of this research is important to note. Although he continued his early research at King’s, Ferrier had been one of a youngish cohort at the West Riding Lunatic Asylum. They were paradigm-makers. Crichton-Browne, John Hughlings Jackson, and others undoubtedly had much influence on Ferrier’s perspectives – and he, in turn, on theirs. Indeed, Ferrier dedicated his monograph on his research The Functions of the Brain to John Hughlings Jackson, who Ferrier acknowledged “from a clinical standpoint” had “anticipated many of the more important results of recent experimental investigation into the functions of the cerebral hemispheres.” He cited Jackson’s research many times throughout his work and always with the aim of complementing his own conclusions that motor centers existed in the brain.

Ironically, Ferrier’s research did not initially sit well with his peers in Britain and elsewhere. As historian David Millett describes, 1874 – the year in which physiologist John Burdon Sanderson read Ferrier’s lecture before the Royal Society – was filled with critical appraisals. But Ferrier appears not have thought their eviscerations particularly significant. His unwillingness in fact to take his critics seriously, left the status of his first manuscript reporting the results of his labor, then under-review with the Transactions of the Royal Society by Michael Foster, George Rolleston, and Thomas Huxley, much in doubt. It ultimately did not appear in print, although the Society did allow publication of a short abstract. Ferrier followed that editorial with many substantial works, most of which are now classics of physiology.

Ultimately, his peers in Britain, as well as continental physiologists and philosophers, came around to Ferrier’s views. By the International Medical Congress of 1881, which was held in London, Ferrier’s research had become widely accepted among European and American men and women of science and medicine. The same was not true for the public, who throughout the period of his research decried his experiments on living animals. As he had been to his peers in science, so Ferrier was to public antipathy. In an early letter expressing his gratitude to the Sheffield Medical-Chirurgical Society for their support in the face of charges brought against him by the police, he stated flatly, “even if I have no case, I should regard the result with comparative indifference, knowing that as to my object I have the sympathy and moral support of my professional brethren”.

To this day, many of the controversies surrounding Ferrier’s research remain unresolved, not least the question of whether the centers actually exist in the brain. While Ferrier had verified that certain motor behaviors could be produced through stimulation of the same areas, the question that haunted his Victorian contemporaries was whether those centers existed and had equivalents for the mind. Were, in other words, mind and brain the same substance? On this question, unlike so many others, Ferrier was not ambivalent. His one comment in The Functions of the Brain voices succinctly his opinion: “We may succeed in determining the exact nature of the molecular changes that occur in the brain cells when a sensation is experienced, but this will not bring us one whit nearer the explanation of the ultimate nature of that which constitutes the sensation.”


  1. In the second sentence of the sixth paragraph you mention David Millet the historian... I am having trouble finding a science historian by the name of David Millet. Please help direct me that way...

  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11620331 It is excellent article. He also wrote an excellent doctoral dissertation:

    Hope this helps.