Making Neurology Global: The First international Neurological COngress in Berne, Switzerland
The First International Neurological Congress was held in Berne Switzerland in 1931. New York neurologist Bernard Sachs (1858-1944), the President of the Congress, welcomed an audience of 890 participants from forty nations and six continents, by declaring: "The purpose of this congress is to establish personal contacts and to unite the neurologists of the entire world."
The Congress unquestionably fulfilled that aim. After almost sixteen years of unwavering animosities, neurologists representing all of the belligerent nations of the 1914-1918 conflict gathered together in neutral territory. There they exchanged pleasantries at a steady stream of smokers, high teas, late-night dinner parties, dances, and a host of field trips to nearby cultural attractions, all the while discussing the science and medicine of the nervous system.
What was the fundamental purpose of these cultural and intellectual exchanges in Switzerland? What was their legacy? Despite the vast expansion of knowledge about the nervous system and its diseases that occurred between 1880 and 1919, the establishment of institutional settings for neurology in the interwar period had been a haphazard affair. The organizers of the Congress intended it as a global corrective to that situation. In other words, the Congress promoted the specialization of an internationally recognized, autonomous field of medicine. Yet this agenda posed many challenges. Not least, could obvious ideological differences between nations be overlooked temporarily and could the tensions readily remembered from past violence truly be forgotten?