Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/December 1881/M. Paul Broca
M. BROCA, says his friend Jacques Bertillon, worked all his o life, and at tasks of very different sorts. "Rarely has there been a mind so active, so equally open to all kinds of knowledge, and so equally fond of all kinds. M. Elisée Reclus, who was his associate in college, tells that he said to him very early in life: 'I do not believe in vocations; a man may select a career almost at random, he will always make a place for himself in it according to his cut.' M. Broca judged others according to himself, and in that went too far, but, as concerned himself, he judged aright." M. Verneuil, pronouncing a funeral eulogy upon him before the Faculty of Medicine, remarked that his life might be shown up as a model to those who desired to become in that profession first pupils, then assistants, and at last masters. In whatever station he was placed, the eulogist added, M. Broca always fulfilled his commission with exemplary exactness and zeal, and, rather than think of avoiding the most trifling item in his programme, he was inclined to charge himself unnecessarily in the fear that he might not be carrying a load proportioned to his strength.
Paul Broca was born at Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, in the Gironde, June 28, 1824. The Brocas were of an old Huguenot family, which had included several of the famous brave "pastors of the desert," who suffered in the times of persecution. Broca's father had served in the Spanish wars, and had contracted a profound hatred of the spirit of despotism in which they originated, and were waged; and young Broca was vividly impressed with the reality of the principles of civil and religious liberty, at six years of age, when the Catholics of Sainte-Foy rose against the Government of July, 1830. In 1832 he entered the Communal College of Sainte-Foy, an institution which was then frequented by all the Protestant youth of France, and at which most of the distinguished men of the Reformed Churches were educated. Broca's father wished him to study medicine. He, having a taste for mathematics, preferred the Polytechnic School. He secretly prepared a baccalaureate in science, and having taken the degree of Bachelor in Letters, first in rank, in 1840, when only sixteen years old, he gained permission from his father to be examined for the bachelor's degree in mathematical sciences. Having gained this, he began to prepare himself for the Polytechnic, teaching in the day-time in the college where he had been a student, studying the calculus at night. His plans were suddenly changed by the death of his sister. He was now an only child, and would not embrace a profession that would call him away from his parents. He resolved to study medicine, and share his father's practice at Sainte-Foy.
He was enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at Paris in November, 1841, and passed successfully through the several competitive examinations, till he became Anatomy Assistant of the Faculty in 1846, Prosector of the Faculty in 1848, and Doctor of Medicine in 1849; and while waiting the aggregate competition, which would not take place for several years, he gave lectures on surgery and operative medicine at the Practical School. Numerous works already gave promise of what the future had in store for him. The bulletins of the Anatomical Society contain several papers which are still in repute on various difficult subjects of pathology. "There is hardly one of these subjects," says his biographer, Dr. Pozzi, "in which he did not at the first stroke make a discovery great or small; there is not one, at any rate, in which he has not left the mark of his originality." At the aggregate competition, which he had been awaiting, Broca displayed an amount of knowledge and an erudition with which the judges were strongly impressed. His thesis was a finished work on one of the most difficult subjects in surgery. He was named first in promotion. At the same time he received, at the competition of the Central Bureau, the title of Surgeon of the Hospitals. He formed many and solid friendships, and exercised, through the superiority of his mind and his integrity, a real intellectual and moral authority.
Till 1859, Broca's labors were exclusively anatomical and surgical. His treatises on "Aneurisms and their Treatment" and on "Tumors" have become celebrated. About two hundred studies on the most various subjects, among which may be mentioned especially his researches on articular cartilages and their pathology, belong to this period.
In the preface to his work on aneurisms, Broca makes an exposition of the principles by which he was guided, which Dr. Pozzi regards as worthy of being made the confession of faith of a scientific writer. "I have desired," he says, "to submit received doctrines and opinions to an independent criticism, knowing well that real science is still hardly in its dawn, and that the most undisputed assertions are frequently the most assailable; I have aimed to set classic descriptions in the face of positive observations, appealing to the experience of surgeons of all countries, profiting by ancient and modern facts, checking one with another, despising none, and seeking before everything the reality, although authority may suffer for it. And I have made it my duty to go back to the origin of our knowledge, to follow ideas and discoveries from their birth to their complete development, and to consecrate the rights often slighted of the true inventors. This alliance of criticism and observation, of clinics and history, is destined gradually to regenerate surgery by delivering it at the same time from tradition and empiricism, from the spirit of routine and the spirit of system, from the sterile erudition of those who look only at the past, and the convenient ignorance of those who are occupied only with the present."
Broca had a high opinion of the value of statistics, and employed them extensively in his researches, as constituting a sure basis for sound conclusions. He uttered a very expressive appreciation of them when he said once in the Academy of Medicine: "Statistics are the anatomy and physiology of the social body. Without them, we grasp only little groups, our judgments are mere impressions, and, even if these impressions do not deceive us, they make us but imperfectly acquainted with facts that are only partial, and the laws of which escape us." Applying the method of means derived from statistics to anatomy, he renovated and almost created anthropology.
After 1859, Broca pursued a double purpose. Without neglecting any of his manifold medical duties, he undertook the considerable task of founding a new society, and almost of a new science. The incidents which led to this step date from 1847, when Broca, as medical assistant, was appointed for the study of the bones, upon a special commission charged with making a report on the excavations in the Church of the Celestins. In preparing to draw up his report, he was led to read the works in which craniology was discussed; and thenceforth, although his competitions drew him to different studies, he continued to read with a lively interest the books, then rare, which treated of man and the human races. The ethnology of the day tended to contract its programme around the then overshadowing question of monogeny or polygeny, and the Ethnological Society of Paris had so exhausted itself with the reiteration of its narrow debates that it had ceased to meet in 1848. Ten years afterward, Broca, having brought out certain facts in hybridity, desired to communicate them to the Society of Biology. He had not foreseen the pusillanimity of some of his colleagues. Some of his positions were contradictory of the doctrine of the monogenists, and Rayer, president of the society, alarmed at the views contained in it, asked Broca to withhold his communications on the subject. He accordingly sought another channel for the publication of his memoir.
This incident, which greatly disturbed the Biological Society, suggested the necessity of founding a new society, in which questions relating to mankind could be given free scope. The project had to make its way against difficulties. Broca wanted to obtain twenty members, but, after a whole year of effort, he had to begin with nineteen. Then there was trouble in getting an authorization for the meeting of the society. The Government officers were afraid of its name, apprehending that the strange word "anthropology" might cover some political or social scheme. Finally, the prefect of the police, judging that a meeting of one short of twenty persons did not require special authorization, gave Broca permission to meet with his friends, on condition that he should be personally responsible for all that might be said against society, religion, or the Government, and that an agent of police should always be present in citizen's dress to see that no harm was done. Broca, says M. E. W. Brabrock, of the Anthropological Institute, "liked to tell an amusing anecdote on the subject of this supervision: The police officer acquitted himself of his mission with so great regularity, and had got so much the habit of sitting among the members, that he seemed soon to have forgotten that he was there in a special capacity. Wishing one day to be able to take a holiday with a clear conscience, he approached the officers with an amiable smile, and addressed Broca: 'There will be nothing interesting to-day, I suppose? May I go?' 'No, no, my friend,' Broca immediately replied,' you must not go for a walk; sit down and earn your pay.' He returned to his place very unwillingly, and never after ventured to ask a holiday from those he was set to look after."
The society held its first meeting May 19, 1859. When it was seen at work, adhesions came fast; and after it had published the first volume of its "Bulletins," and shown the exclusively scientific character of its labors, the suspicions which it had excited before its birth began to subside. The Minister of Public Instruction deigned at last to authorize it in 1861, and three years afterward it was recognized as a society of public utility. M. Broca, all agree, was the soul of this society. Having founded it, he kept it alive during its perilous early years by the prepondering interest of his incessant labors, and the communicative ardor of his devotion to the young science. He had the faculty of grouping the most diverse, and, apparently, the most discordant, elements around his person; the power to excite the zeal of some, restrain the passion of others, and to exercise over all an authority that was incontestable and uncontested, simply because it rested solely upon his real superiority freely recognized by all. This influence of Broca, visible particularly at the beginning, continued no less real till the last days of his life, notwithstanding he took pains to avoid everything that might give him the appearance of a personal direction. He was secretary of the society for the first three years, and was accustomed to record its debates from memory after the meetings were over, in a manner that heightened their original interest and gave prominence to the central point of the debate. In 1863 the growth of the society had made the office of a general secretary necessary. Broca was elected to the position, and held it till his death.
In 1861 Broca began his admirable researches on the brain. In a series of four memoirs he gave reasons for the belief that the brain was not, as many at the time thought, "an undivided organ in which the different faculties have no determined seat," but that the fundamental convolutions of the cerebral hemispheres are distinct organs, each having distinct functions. Performing an autopsy upon a man who had been deprived of the faculty of speech for twenty years, he was led, by a careful examination of the condition of his brain, to the conviction that the primary seat of his affection was in the third convolution of the left frontal lobe. Other facts came in to confirm his view, and this part of the organ, now generally known as the "convolution of Broca," has been determined to be the center of the faculty of speech.
In the two manuals which Broca published as guides to the studies of general anthropology and craniology, he condensed in a few pages the work of several years. He insisted especially on the importance of accurate measurements, and of having conclusions supported by the averages of a large number of experimental cases. For these purposes he invented more than thirty simple, accurate, and convenient instruments of measurement. His anthropological memoirs are numerous, and pertain to all branches of the science, prehistorical, historical, ethnographical, and linguistic, and repeatedly illustrate the activity and encyclopedic comprehension of his intellect. He had begun to collect them in a series of volumes, of which three have been published and a fourth is in preparation. During the later years of his life he was chiefly interested in cerebral morphology; and he was engaged, when he was surprised by death, in a complete work on the morphology of the brain, to constitute a masterly summary of the result of his studies. Though it is unfinished, this valuable manuscript will not be lost to science. Its scattered leaves have been collected, and will be eventually published.
Broca intermitted his anthropological labors during the Franco-German War, in order to serve his country as one of the three directors of Public Assistance. Here it was his privilege, by the exercise of considerable prudence and tact, to save the funds of the department, amounting to 75,000,000 francs (or $115,000,000), from plunder by the Communists. While others were ready to boast of their services, and claim recognition for them after order was restored, Broca made no allusion to what he had done. He resumed his studies during the second siege, occupying himself in the formation of the collection of cerebral models in the laboratory. He founded the "Revue d'AnthropologiE" in January, 1872, and in the same year took part in the formation of the French Association for the Advancement of the Sciences, in which he became the leading spirit in the Anthropological Section.
The foundation of the Anthropological School, and its installation in rooms dependent on the Faculty of Medicine, was due to Broca's personal influence and zeal. The period of preparation for the opening of the institution was fraught with perils to it arising from the opposition of the clerical party and the timidity of the Government. The school, the laboratory, and the Anthropological Society, meeting in the same place, are now together known as the Anthropological Institute.
At the beginning of 1880 M. Broca was elected Senator for life. Shortly afterward he wrote in reply to the congratulations of an English club over his new advancement: "In choosing their candidate for the first time from outside the political world, the 'Left' of the Senate have wished to manifest their good disposition toward the sciences; and, if I am happy in having been chosen on that ground, I am especially happy that anthropology should have acquired so much importance in public opinion as to be called to have its representative in the Senate." A banquet was given him by his friends in honor of his nomination, when he made a remark which had a singular bearing in connection with his sudden death: "My friends, I am too happy .... Yes, I am too happy. If I was superstitious, I should regard my nomination to the Senate as the presage of some great misfortune, perhaps as the presage of death." On the 6th of July, 1880, he was seized with a fainting-fit at his place in the Senate. He resumed his work on the two following days, but was attacked again at midnight on the 8th, and died in ten minutes. His organs were found to be all sound, and his death was attributed to cerebral exhaustion arising from overwork.
For forty years Broca lived a life of persistent work. While still a student, he would pass his nights reading scientific works and journals pen in hand, to note down what he found most interesting. For three years, although he was otherwise the busiest of the professors, he delivered his lectures twice a week, while his colleagues were satisfied to give a single lesson. He was accustomed to spend much time every day at the laboratory, dissecting, drawing, or superintending the modeling and classification of new specimens; and he also devoted most of his evenings to anthropology. The pressure of his duties finally became so great that he could only afford one hour an evening for his favorite work, and he took from eleven o'clock till midnight, promising his family that he would not study later.
As a teacher, says M. Bertillon, he was clearness itself. His passion for truth spoke in his lectures, and he would never leave a subject till he could see the understanding of it reflected in the face of every hearer down to the simplest child. He was always ready to ignore the interests of his own ambition for the sake of those of science, and insisted on retiring from the presidency of the Anthropological Section of the French Association in 1876, so that the honor might be open to others. His style was simple and elegant, and combined the graces of the man of taste and the lover of poetry with the preciseness of the scientific student. In his personality his features were less important than the expression that animated them. In personal intercourse his vivacity, his originality, his fertile memory, and his inexhaustible resources in quotations and anecdotes, made him a charming talker. He was as familiar with questions of aesthetics and literature as with those of politics and science; was interested in everything, and had his own well-reasoned views on everything. In all things love of truth was the great passion of his life.