Generally practitioners of science and medicine approach the writing of history from a perspective slightly different than social or cultural historians. A Hole in the Head is no exception to this rule – indeed the summary of the volume makes that fact explicit as it presents questions about why practitioners pursue “blind alleys and errors”. Typically such concerns lead to a somewhat amateurish sense of history, but Gross’s sophistication never succumbs to simplistic interpretation. He achieves – like Janus – the ability to look backward and forward. Indeed, the volume shows a concern for what Owsei Temkin observed in his own historical practice as a need to be “both methodically useful and historically instructive” for the present.  Because the essays in this volume are highly diverse, it is perhaps best to briefly offer two examples of the above preoccupations, which may also suffice to illustrate the appeal of the volume and its thoughtful approach.
One of the more remarkable essays focuses on Joseph Altman and Adult Neurogenesis. In this essay, Gross observes that the prevailing dogma for generations was that the adult mammalian brain did not produce new neurons. That dogma was challenged by Joseph Altman through a series of largely ignored but prestigious publications in Science, Nature, and the Journal of Comparative Neurology. Despite the landmark nature of his publications, Altman was denied tenure at MIT and eventually moved to Purdue University. His early studies were replicated by Michael Kaplan et al, who again published in organs like Science and the Journal of Comparative Neurology. Work in avian brains, which evidently confirmed these findings, while regarded highly, failed to counter the view that primate and mammalian brains did not produce neurons.
Why, Gross wonders, were Altman’s discoveries ignored? The answers are complicated: experts were blinded by the weight of tradition, developmental anatomists opposed the claim, and many were invested in “denying neuronal plasticity” (p. 238). Altman, however, also discovered subsequently that there was “a clandestine effort by a group of influential neuroscientists to suppress the evidence we had presented and, later on, to silence us altogether by closing down our laboratory” (p. 241). Thus Gross takes us beyond the usual intellectual speculations towards a deeper consideration of the structure of scientific paradigms, the nature of which are often dictated by social and political decisions rather than facts. The truth will out, but usually – sadly – later.
|Claude Bernard (1813-1878)|
In sum, Charles G. Gross’s A Hole in the Head: More Tales in the History of Neuroscience is that rare book that contains something of interest for everyone. Many of the essays might be useful in undergraduate neuroscience teaching or in courses focusing on mind, brain, and society. Each of the essays, moreover, contains observations that a graduate student could unpack into a significant and fascinating study for the history of the neurosciences. In other words, it is a book for all seasons.
 Owsei Temkin, “The Double Face of Janus and Other Essays in the History of Medicine” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 20.