Paul Pierre Broca (June 28, 1824 - July 9, 1880) was a French physician, anatomist and anthropologist. He was a prodigy as a child, holding baccalaureate degrees simultaneously in literature, mathematics and physics. He entered the medical school when he was only 17 years old, and graduated at 20, when most of his contemporaries were just beginning as medical students.
Broca studied medicine in Paris. He soon became a professor of surgical pathology at the University of Paris and a noted medical researcher in many areas. At the age of 24 he was already being showered with awards, medals and important positions. His early scientific works dealt with the histology of cartilage and bone, but he also studied cancer pathology, the treatment of aneurysms and infant mortality. As a superb neuroanatomist, he made important contributions to the understanding of the limbic system, or rhinencephalon.
But the field of study where Broca became famous and a towering figure in the history of medicine and the neurosciences, was his discovery of the speech center (now known as the Broca's area or the third circumvolution of the frontal lobe). He arrived at this discovery by studying the brains of aphasic patients (persons unable to talk), particularly the brain of his first patient in the Bicêtre Hospital , named "Tan", who was shown by Broca in 1861 to have a neurosyphilitic lesion in one side of the brain, precisely in the area which controlled speech.
Broca was also a pioneer in the study of physical anthropology. He founded the Anthopological Society of Paris in 1859, the Revue d'Anthropologie in 1872, and the School of Anthropology in Paris in 1876. He advanced the science of cranial anthropometry by developing many new types of measuring instruments (craniometers) and numerical indices. The uses that racist ideologues and even reputable scientists made of Broca's measurements and conclusions have been thoroughly discussed by Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man (1981). Broca's work is also featured in Carl Sagan's Broca's Brain .
Another field in which Broca contributed significantly was the comparative anatomy of primates. He described for the first time trephined skulls from the Neolithic. He was very interested in the relation between anatomical features of the brain and mental capabilities, such as intelligence.
As a personality, Broca seemed to be a remarkable individual. His contemporaries described him as a "generous, compassionate and kind, with unbreakable fortitude and honesty, venerated by all. He never made an enemy and never lost a friend. He was noble and a Christian follower" (however, he founded in 1848 a society of free-thinkers, was sympathetic to Darwin's theory of natural selection, and was denounced by authorities as a subversive figure, a materialist and a corrupter of the youth). He was an indefatigable worker and wrote hundreds of books and papers (53 of them alone devoted to studies on the brain). He was also concerned with health care for the poor, being an important figure in the Assistance Publique.
Near the end of his life, Paul Broca was elected a lifetime member of the French Senate. He was also a member of the Académie Française and held honorary degrees from many other learned institutions, in France and abroad.
Pierre Paul Broca was born in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande and died in Paris
The History of Psychosurgery
By: Renato M.E. Sabbatini, PhD
In: Brain & Mind, June 1997.
Reproduced with permission.