Neuroscience by Caricature in Europe throughout the ages

by Lorenzo Lorusso
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Jean-Martin Charcot caricaturist

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Caricature on Charcot

Caricature on Charcot seen by one of his pupil: Édouard Brissaud (1875). Image from a private collection.

Jan-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) is considered one of the founders of the modern neurology and the world’s first chaired professor of Neurology. He incorporated visual art into his daily neurological clinical practice and in his teaching lessons. He was also a keen art collector. His personal artistic preferences were for the Dutch artists of the seventeenth century, whose realism was characterised by the simplicity and unadorned clarity but he liked also the Renaissance and baroque school including painters such as Le Dominiquin, Carrache, Breughel, Velasquez, and Jordaen, with a special interest in Rubens, to whom he often refereed for the clinical descriptions. His distinguishing clinical characteristic was a keen ability to see the essential features of diseases, extracting them from the mass of confusing details. Charcot was not the first or the only clinician to use medical illustration and visual art as a source for medical documentation. Many of his English contemporaries such as William Richard Gowers (1845-1915) and John Hughlings Jackson (1835-1911) and the earlier Charles Bell (1744-1845), included their own neurological and medical drawings in their text. However Charcot employed more artistic rather than simply didactic representations in his own work.

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Medical Faculty in Paris

Charcot’s caricature on Medical Faculty in Paris, published in Nouvelle Iconographie de la Salpêtrière, Novembre-Décembre 1898. Image from a private collection.

He was a talented artist with a great interest in caricature. He used caricature to depict neurological cases to capture the essential character from a detail of the body and the face in particular. Charcot had the ability to immediately synthesize the ensemble of impressions and isolate the major features of a patient or a disease. This type of observation is the main capacity of clinicians and in neurology in particular. From his student Henri Meige (1866-1940), Charcot became interested in caricature as a form of depiction. When 17 years old as a student he visited the “quartier Latin” in Paris and he drew a caricature of a “dandy”. In 1855, at the age of 28 he was appointed chef de Clinique. When with colleagues and under the influence of hashish he realized phantasmagoric drawings of dragons, devils and hellish scenes. In his career Charcot often applied fantasy in every context. He drew humorous portraits of colleagues of the Medical Faculty of the University of Paris, as well as patients seen in his clinic. He himself was also the object of caricature by others. One of his students É Douard Brissaud (1852-1909) portrayed Charcot observing a brain which he held in his hands. Charcot considered the art of caricature for providing a portrayal which allowed the viewer to see at a glance, premier coup d’oeil, the essential features of people and their symptoms. The artist and the clinician are two unique facets of Charcot, whose permanent coexistence help to understand his legacy.

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Parkinson’s disease

Charcot’s drawing made during his trip to Maroc, with a representation of a patient affected by Parkinson’s disease (1889). Image from a private collection.


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