- William Richard Gowers, 1845–1915: Exploring the Victorian Brain by Ann Scott, Mervyn Eadie, and Andrew Lees
Among those physicians and scientists who pioneered the study of the nervous system and its diseases in Victorian Britain, few were as significant as William Richard Gowers (1845—1915). Although he is most famous for [End Page 331] his two-volume Manuel of Nervous Diseases, his studies in spinal diseases and epilepsy still elicit the admiration of neurologists, psychiatrists, and medical psychologists today. A colleague of medical luminaries such as John Hugh-lings Jackson, David Ferrier, and James Crighton-Browne, Gowers, who was one-time Professor of Clinical Medicine at University College London, was representative of an elite vanguard whose labor and scientific discoveries made renowned the National Hospital for Epilepsy and Paralysis, Queen Square, London.
For all of that, however, Gowers has largely eluded the attention of biographers and historians. Indeed, it is fair to measure him as an enigmatic figure among his generation, and in part this may be blamed on something of personal eccentricity. Gowers wrote almost everything in shorthand—a technology of professionalism that he regarded as necessary for anyone to guarantee success and fortune in the bustling, electrifying world of the second industrialization. What was for Gowers a necessary element of professional productivity, however, has been for many contemporary historians an almost impossible hurdle to overcome in their efforts to reconstruct his life and importance in the history of medicine and science.
No more. It is possible to describe Ann Scott, Mervyn Eadie, and Andrew Lees’ biography as a simply astonishing act of labor and a major contribution to the history of late-Victorian and Edwardian medicine. Using manuscripts long held by Gowers’s descendents (Scott is his great-granddaughter), the authors have transcribed a veritable mountain of shorthand notes from diaries and other manuscripts while also bringing to light numerous letters and other documents that provide a full portrait of the man, from his earliest years to the close of his long life. This beautiful biography gives much space to not only Gowers’s professional development and life but provides a rich, insider-view of his personal life as well. There is much here of fathers and sons, familial relations and domesticity, and ephemeral friendships.
At moments, of course, the three authors struggle to find an evenness of tone. While Gowers’s personal life, medical apprenticeship, and early career are richly interpreted, there are moments when the authors adopt a somewhat presentist evaluation of his science and medicine. This tendency is hardly unique among the mountain of biographies of neurologists produced by Oxford University Press, and it seems almost an overt strategy by the press to perhaps reach a wider audience of clinicians and scientists. Something is lost, however, in the measure of the man.
That said, this biography possesses so much new material on the late-nineteenth-century science and medicine of the brain and mind, it cannot be missed by any serious student of the history of neurology or psychiatry. Let me offer one noteworthy gem from this biography by way of illustration. Many historians have long noted a relationship between “empire” and [End Page 332] “the nervous system.” Most authors identifying this tendency have noted it in a dense thicket of primary sources within British or Western culture. They have typically regarded it as evidence of Darwinist determinism, eugenic appetites, or the rhetoric of cultural degeneration. For all of that, the actual evidence linking those who labored on the nervous system to “imperial evangelizers” and apologists for Empire has been tenuous at best. This biography makes the connection appreciably tighter; it seems that Gowers much admired John Ruskin and avidly corresponded with a young Rudyard Kipling, the latter of whom congratulated Gowers in one of several letters with a hand-drawn coat-of-arms with shorthand insignia on the announcement of his knighthood. Did Ruskin’s influence seep into Gowers’s neurology? We can only guess, but...