Featured article: Yvan Prkachin on the origins of neuroscience

Yvan Prkachin’s article, “‘The Sleeping Beauty of the Brain’: Memory, MIT, Montreal, and the Origins of Neuroscience,” appears in the March 2021 issue of Isis.

Our manuscript assistant, Samuel Green, asked Dr. Prkachin to talk about his research into the tangled mid-century roots of the “unified” sciences of the brain.

GREEN: Your essay focuses on brain science unification efforts at the Montreal Neurological Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Could you briefly describe what drew you to this history and your process for finding relevant archival sources?

PRKACHIN: I had, for quite some time, been fascinated by the character of Wilder Penfield, the neurosurgeon who launched the MNI in the 1930s. (I grew up in Canada, and Penfield was a fairly well-known historical figure among my generation, thanks largely to a series of “Heritage Minute” short films commissioned by the Canadian government in the 1990s.) When I began working on my Ph.D. at Harvard in 2012, I knew that I was interested in Penfield and his institute, but I wasn’t quite sure what was most historically relevant about it, or where to place it in the broader history of the modern biomedical sciences. I was lucky enough to get a small grant in 2014 and spent nearly a year in Montreal rummaging through Penfield’s papers, and those of his collaborators; the men and women who worked at the MNI seemed to throw almost nothing away, so the records at the Osler Library for the History of Medicine and the McGill University Archives are incredibly rich.

It became increasingly clear, as I read through letters, memoirs, and published and unpublished papers, that something pretty remarkable had taken place at the MNI in the mid-twentieth century. The level of interdisciplinary integration seemed genuinely unprecedented, and really climaxed with the work of Penfield, Herbert Jasper, and their new colleague, the neuropsychologist Brenda Milner, who together worked to unravel the memory deficits suffered by patients who had undergone surgical treatment for epilepsy. The MNI seemed like a perfect example of Peter Galison’s notion of a trading zone, but in an area of science other than physics. So, I knew there was something there worth writing about.

But it was actually a series of comments in an unpublished interview given by Penfield’s close collaborator, the neurophysiologist Herbert Jasper, that really pointed me in a new direction. Jasper had been asked to discuss the contributions of the MIT-based scientist Francis O. Schmitt. Over the course of this interview, he made a number of, frankly, dismissive comments about Schmitt’s role in the creation of ‘neuroscience,’ which was surprising given the pride of place Schmitt usually received in textbook histories of the modern brain sciences. Even more surprising, he went out of his way to distinguish Schmitt’s idea of ‘neuroscience’ from the ‘interdisciplinary brain research’ that Jasper had been trying to spread through the International Brain Research Organization, which he had helped to create in 1960. He also talked about how misguided Schmitt’s ideas about memory were. Taken together with what I already knew about the MNI, it was pretty clear there was a conflict here that was worth investigating. When I was an undergraduate, I had a professor who was fond of saying that you didn’t really understand one country’s history until you compared it with another country. So, I wondered if this same approach could be applied to two different attempts to unify the brain sciences – two attempts that seemed to be almost totally disconnected from one another, but took memory as their central object of study.

When I got back to Boston about a year later, I started working my way through Schmitt’s papers at the MIT Archives (he also seemed to never throw anything away!). It was through these papers that I discovered Schmitt’s totally different approach to unifying the brain sciences, and his almost obsessive need to discover a ‘memory molecule.’ The papers also gave me a fascinating glimpse at the inner world of a scientist who struggled to reconcile his scientific work with his own religious convictions. At this point, it became pretty obvious that telling this story would give us a new look at the formation of modern neuroscience, so the rest of the research was a process of following down important leads and trying to put everything in context. So, it was really a process of going into archives that I was pretty sure would have something interesting, combined with serendipitous discoveries, and following my nose.

Dr. Yvan Prkachin

What most interested you about the different approaches used by neuroscientists at MNI and MIT, and the efforts put in by various scientific organizations to build an international consensus among their peers?

I suppose the most striking thing was how these radically different approaches to memory reflected really different ideas about how scientists ought to relate to (and work with) each other. In some respects, the MNI reflected an older notion of interdisciplinarity that extended back to the Rockefeller Foundation’s program in psychiatry, the ideas of the Swiss-émigré psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, and the broader laboratory revolution in medicine that had been underway since the nineteenth century, along with Penfield’s own experiences in Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s laboratory in Spain. Interdisciplinarity was a social activity, in which different scientists would work together on shared problems. The brain and mind sciences would be unified in a piecemeal fashion.

By contrast, Schmitt’s approach clearly reflected the growing dominance of molecular biology, but also an overall philosophy of scientific unity that was very different. Schmitt’s ambitions were almost imperial – all of the brain and mind sciences would be reoriented by a unifying discovery (the memory molecule), and would then rebuild themselves with this central insight. But Schmitt’s way of bringing this revolution about had little to do with laboratory practice or shared work; instead, it would be accomplished through a strategy that resembled a cross between a think tank and a public relations campaign. The main goal of Schmitt’s group was to encourage unorthodox trading of ideas from disparate branches of science.

Both visions of disciplinary cohesion were deeply compelling, and in their own ways, quite beautiful. Penfield and the MNI really seemed to inspire the growing global community of brain researchers after World War II, and Schmitt clearly knew how to motivate and organize people – he comes across as a bit egotistical in this essay, but he really was a brilliant leader of other scientists (it was in his lab, for instance, that Betty Gehren developed the so-called ‘jelly roll model of nerve myelination in the 1950s, for which she narrowly missed winning a Nobel Prize). But what was most fascinating, from a historical point of view, was how neither of these visions could be implemented in quite the way that was intended. The International Brain Research Organization could never quite figure out how to translate the MNI approach to the global stage, and Schmitt’s memory molecule hypothesis turned out to be a dead end. Yet both visions proved so compelling to mid-century scientists that they survived in modified forms, serving to animate the creation of one of the world’s largest scientific organizations, the Society for Neuroscience. So, the story of these two approaches to memory can really serve as a way of unpacking the emergence of an idea that we tend to take for granted in the modern biomedical sciences – the idea of interdisciplinarity.

Did anything surprise you about memory science as you researched and wrote this paper?

Two things: First, I was genuinely surprised at the relative absence of computer metaphors or cybernetic talk among memory scientists in the mid-century. My colleague Danielle Carr and I have discussed a number of times how we think the importance of cybernetics to the brain sciences has been somewhat overplayed in the existing historiography, and this seems like a good example. In fact, one of the few things that Schmitt and the MNI group would have agreed upon was that cybernetics was, at least for them, pretty uninteresting. In the early days, Schmitt never invited cybernetically-inclined scientists like Warren McCulloch or Marvin Minsky to the NRP meetings, and Penfield and Jasper said wonderfully dismissive things about cybernetics. So that was surprising.

Second, I was genuinely struck by just how much weight different scientists would give memory in their overall conception of mind. The stakes of memory seemed very high. For Schmitt, memory had religious implications that he was only willing to discuss privately. For Penfield, memory was central to his overall theory of consciousness. But many other scientists and medical professionals were interested. For instance, the psychoanalyst Lawrence Kubie travelled to Montreal to watch Penfield’s operations himself, because the idea of memory was so crucial to classical Freudian theory. Historians of science have investigated the contentious status of faculties like reason in the twentieth century, but memory seemed to carry just as much weight.

One of the most intriguing characters in your essay is the neuropsychologist Brenda Milner, who is still alive at the age of 102! Did she have any input into your research?

She did! I had been trying to interview her for a number of years. She’s a remarkable woman – she only retired at the age of 97, and kept a busy enough schedule that it had been difficult to find a time to talk. I had pretty much given up on the possibility of interviewing her when she called me completely out of the blue one day. We talked for a few hours, and at one point she asked me what exactly I was going to write. I blurted out something about how “everyone seems to think that neuroscience started at MIT with the work of Francis Schmitt….” Before I could finish, she interjected: “Who?” I initially chalked this up to a momentary lapse in memory, but her memory of other details from that period was shockingly accurate, perhaps a fitting quality for a woman who’s spent her life studying memory. So, her lack of knowledge of Schmitt served as a small confirmation of my own understanding of the story – two distinct approaches to memory that grew up in almost total isolation from one another.