American Medical Biographies/Beard, George Miller

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Beard, George Miller (1839–1883)

George M. Beard, neurologist, the son of the Rev. S. F. Beard, Congregational minister, was born at Montville, Connecticut, May 8, 1839; prepared for college at Andover, Massachusetts. He entered Yale, graduating in 1862. As an undergraduate he was prominent as a scholar, writer and debater and received the Townsend premium. He graduated at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, in 1866. Between his first and second course of lectures he served for eighteen months as assistant surgeon in the United States Navy. In 1866 he became associated with Dr. A. D. Rockwell, for the study of nervous diseases, and especially for the development of electricity in its relations to medicine and surgery. At the time when Dr. Beard and Dr. Rockwell began their researches in electro-therapeutics, electricity had not been used to any extent by physicians in this country, and very little abroad, except among a few specialists, and only by local methods. Their first systematic contribution to the subject was a series of five articles "On the Medical Use of Electricity," with special reference to general electrization in which the constitutional tonic effects of electricity were first enunciated and demonstrated. These articles were not only quoted, but reprinted in full in various journals both in England and Germany. In 1872 he published with Dr. Rockwell the first edition of their larger work on "The Medical and Surgical Uses of Electricity," which was translated into German, and had there a very large circulation. The methods of "general faradization" and "central galvanization," to the consideration of which the book is in part devoted, have been introduced into Germany through its translation, and have long been incorporated into the scientific literature. The study of medical electricity led naturally and inevitably to the study of psychology, and in 1867 Dr. Beard published a paper on "The Longevity of Brain Workers," which demonstrated that those who live by brain live longer than those by muscle; that great men live longer than ordinary men. Following this came papers on: "Cosmic Law of Intemperance;" "A Plea for Scientific Reform"; "Atmospheric Electricity and Ozone, Their Relations to Health and Disease"; "The Relation of the Medical Profession to the Popular Delusions of Animal Magnetism, Clairvoyance, Spiritualism, and Mind Reading"; "The Physiology of Mind Reading"; "Trance and Transoidal States in Lower Animals"; "How to Use the Bromides"; "Current Delusions Relating to Hypnotism"; "The Study of Trance and Muscle Reading, and Allied Nervous Phenomena in Europe and America, with a Letter upon the Moral Character of Trance Subjects." He founded the Archives of Electrology and Neurology, a semi-annual journal, which was continued two years (1874–6).

Beard gave much attention for many years to the reconstruction of the principles of evidence on the basis of psychology, and his outlines appeared in various papers in the Popular Science Monthly. This reconstruction applies especially to the phenomena of living human beings, and to the sources of error in our reasoning, and the misapprehensions that come from those errors. He maintained that it was a most important defect in the Baconian philosophy that these sources of error were not formulated. This he attempted to do, maintaining that human testimony as such is, in matters of science, of no worth; that neither honesty nor quantity of non-experts in the special matter in hand can establish any scientific fact. He affirmed, therefore, that in science the rejection of average human testimony is the beginning of all wisdom. In his work on "American Nervousness," he treated of the causes of nervous disorders, and of nervousness in general, and of their greater prevalence in America, demonstrating that the great cause of nervous diseases is civilization, other accredited causes being secondary and stationary, and that the cause of the great prevalence of nervous diseases in America is dryness of the air and extremes of heat and cold. Mr. Herbert Spencer, in his visit to America in 1882, made a speech substantially repeating many of the thoughts and some of the language of Dr. Beard's writings on this latter subject. In Beard's work on "Neurasthenia," he brought the professional attention to a large number of symptoms of nervous and functional diseases, which he contended were of immense importance scientifically and practically. In his treatise on sea-sickness, Dr. Beard brought into prominence these two facts: That sea-sickness was a functional disease of the nervous system, induced mechanically by concussion, and that it could be in many, and perhaps in the majority of cases entirely prevented. The plan of treatment suggested by his work has now been successfully carried out on every sea and for the longest voyages. When the inventor Edison thought he had discovered a new force, the "Etheric Force," Dr. Beard spent much time in experimenting both with Mr. Edison and independently, reaching the conclusion that the phenomena represented an unnoticed phase of induced electricity. Beard's writings were essentially philosophical in character. He accepted the principle of evolution. All of his writings on the nervous system were based upon the development theory. He contended that it was impossible to obtain sound and philosophical ideas of the nervous system in health and disease, except on the basis of that theory. He therefore carried the evolution theory into the study of insanity and all functional diseases of the nervous system and of trance and allied states, and aimed at a radical reconstruction of insanity on that basis. He was the first who clearly and prominently demonstrated that the facts of the phenomena of delusions belong to psychology instead of to physics or physiology, and should, therefore, be brought into science exclusively by psychologists. It was in this field that Dr. Beard was laboring when the summons came on January 23, 1883.

He married in 1866, Elizabeth Ann Alden, of Westville, Connecticut.

Among other appointments he was lecturer on nervous diseases in the University of New York; physician of nervous disorders to the Demilt Dispensary; fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine; member of the New York County Medical Society, of the New York Society of Neurology. A full list of his writings can be seen in the "Surgeon-general's Catalogue," Washington, D. C.

Tr. Med. Soc. of the State of N. Y., 1883.
Jour. Nerv. and Ment. Dis., N. Y., 1883, n. s., vol. viii. Portrait.
Med. News, Phila., 1883, vol. lxii.
Med. Record, N. Y., 1883, vol. xxiii.
Med. Leg. Jour., N. Y., 1883–4, vol. i.