In celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we explore Augusta Dejerine-Klumpke’s life through her biography (originally written in French) to find out how she began her scientific career and what legacy she left for future generations of neuroscientists.
She was born in San Francisco, United States, and lived there until April 1871 when her mother – Dorothea Klumpke – embarked for Europe with her six children.
Life took back its course in San Francisco. It was very comfortable. We were following classes at ‘High School Valencia Street’, which was very well organized for discipline and hygiene. It was a mixed school, with boys and girls sitting in two columns, but with separate playgrounds. At home, nothing was spared for our education, including a German teacher, a music teacher, a dance teacher, a drawing teacher and visits to the zoological garden. At 10 years, I could read German. I also received the Iliad and the Odyssey, Grimm’s tales, Andersen’s tales, which I read with passion.
Far from her husband, after their marriage had deteriorated, Dorothea Klumpke and her children lived in Germany for two years and then moved to Switzerland. During the German years, Augusta followed intensive French lessons, which allowed her to enter the Lausanne High School.
After 2 years, I knew enough French to be able to follow classes in French at ‘L’Ecole Supérieure de Jeunes Filles’ in Lausanne. My mother sent me to stay with one of the school teachers. I was following courses, and I also enjoyed helping one of my teacher’s nephews with all his college homework. I worked this way for 3 years. Then, for the education of my younger sisters, my mother settled in Lausanne.
In Lausanne Augusta also had lessons of ancient languages, science, chemistry and natural history by professors at the university. Although she had limited financial resources, her mother did not hesitate at any sacrifice to give the best education for her children.
After obtaining diplomas, Augusta was thinking about becoming a teacher. A fashion magazine changed her plans definitively: Madeleine Brès – the first French woman to obtain a medical degree in 1875 – caught her mother’s attention and reminded her of a premonitory sentence.
However, one day, while opening a fashion magazine, ‘La Mode Illustrée’ published by Firmin Didot, my mother read that a woman, Mrs Madeleine Brès, had passed her doctorate thesis in medicine at the medical faculty in Paris. She then remembered a comment made by our dear family doctor in San Francisco: ‘Madam, if you can make a physician of your second daughter, go ahead’.
Augusta accepted the proposal with enthusiasm because she could have continued studying science. The medical school, however, was not in Geneva nor in Lausanne, and in Zurich her mother was afraid of the Russian nihilist student girls who dressed like men. Where to study? A conversation during a mountain vacation dissolved any doubt.
Then, during our mountain vacation in 1876, she met a Parisian lady: ‘What, madam, you will be separated from your children, with one daughter in Rome or Munich for artistic studies, the other one perhaps in hell in Zürich, and you with your other children in Lausanne; why don’t you come to Paris, you will fi nd there any possible resource you need: atelier de peinture, courses at the medical faculty and the Sorbonne, excellent schools for your son, teaching for your younger children, and you will not be separated from them’.
In 1877 her mother organized the move to Paris and planned the start of studies for all her children in October. Augusta’s sister, Dorothea, who was a pioneer of astronomy, was the first woman to submit a thesis at the Sorbonne in 1893.
It seems to me that my beloved good mother has not too badly succeeded in her children’s education. To her goes all the merit. She was an admirable mother, with a noble soul, high feelings and total commitment. She was living only for her children. She taught us not to give up when faced with diffi culties, to perseverate and to will. Thanks to her, we were privileged among the girl students in Paris, who were usually foreign and isolated. […] She ran her household with wise economy, and surrounded us with beauty of nature, art and heart. We were her pride and joy, and for us she was everything.
In 1880, Augusta entered the clinical service of Prof. Hardy at the Charité Hospital.
This was the place where I became initiated to scientific research. I was following clinical activities and lessons, taking histories with patients, going back to the hospital in the afternoon to examine newly admitted patients and performing autopsies. I was given the responsibility of some histological examinations. Besides, my knowledge of foreign languages allowed me to take better advantage of medical texts. Thus, I initiated myself to the English and German medical literature. I read original papers, consulted textbooks and compared published observations with inpatients in our service. I was instructing myself and shaping my mind. These years were much more interesting than the mere study of books for preparing an examination.
Women were not admitted for internships at the Paris hospitals, notwithstanding their successful examinations. The perseverance and an intense feminist campaign allowed Blanche Edwards – the French physician and women’s rights acrivist – and Augusta Klumpke to be appointed as interns.
Miss Edwards made request after request. The fight was intense, and the tension became particularly acute during spring 1885, when all preparation courses were closed to us. In July, we did not know if we would be authorized to take the contest in October. In August, we were admitted by the Prefect of the Seine, despite the negative advice from the Dean of the Faculty, the Medical Society of Hospitals and the Surgical Society of the Hospitals in a plenary session, the Surveillance Council of the ‘Assistance Publique’, and contrary to the advice of the Association of the Former Interns of the Paris Hospitals.
The first admission of women to Paris hospitals was, therefore, a political decision.
Politics sometimes brings progress.
After Augusta Klumpke married Jules Déjerine, internship was interrupted.
Since then they had a lifetime scientific collaboration. But what was Augusta’s contribution?
We can find out the words André-Thomas, his pupil and collaborator, wrote in 1928.
Several scientists have asked me how it is possible to distinguish the role of Mrs. Dejerine in the common work with Dejerine. This discrimination seems impossible to me, considering the general concept and the results obtained. However, the purely technical part, the choice of cuts, the arrangement of the tables, all the iconographic part must be attributed to Mrs Dejerine. It was under her direction that Henri Gillet executed the magnificent drawings illustrating the two volumes of the Anatomy of the Nervous Centers. Mrs. Dejerine excelled in the art of constructing a scheme, which sums up all the documentation, all the data definitively acquired on an anatomical system. In this respect, her collaboration is still at the highest level in the Semiology of the nervous system, entirely written by Mr. Dejerine. The demonstration is in all the schemes concerning protuberant, bulbar, peduncular syndromes, color schemes of the oculogyric pathways, peripheral and radicular innervation of the skin or muscles […], etc. etc. We admire in these schemes that she completely executed, the respect of proportion and harmony that, with the broad conception and care of every detail, was never missed. Mrs. Dejerine was at once a great idealist and the most meticulous of the directors. Personally, I owe him two color schemes in which she synthesizes my research on the cerebellar pathways and on the sympathetic system. She also drew beautiful anatomical tables, used extensively by Mr. Dejerine in his teaching at the Salpétrière.
Augusta Déjerine-Klumpke published many other scientific studies, gave a number of unrecognized contributions and received prestigious awards and acknowledgments. And then she was forgotten.
In the last years of her life she was very committed to ensuring access to scientific knowledge to the neurologists of the future.
In 1920, together with her daughter Yvonne Déjerine, she organized a Collection at the Faculty of Medicine made up of materials and documents of the Déjerine’s scientific work, ordering and cataloging them, so that they could be used by future neuroscientists.
She also established an annual funded award assigned by the Society of Neurology in memory of Jules Déjerine, to acknowledge the most relevant research in clinical or experimental anatomy, conducted by young researchers.
Voir confirmer ses recherches et les conclusions d’un travail que l’on craignait d’affirmer trop audacieusement et, lorsqu’on suit une piste que l’on croit très sure, la voir contrôler par ses recherches personnelles et par les recherches des maîtres dans la carrière, est certes une des plus grosses jouissances scientifiques que peut éprouver un jeune auteur.
Thalgut, le 7 octobre 1927. Lettre de Mme Dejerine à sa fille Mme Sorrel-Déjerine.
[Seeing confirmed her own research and the conclusions of her own work that was feared too audacious and, when you follow a track that you care a lot about, seeing it replicated by your own research and by the research of the masters of the field, is certainly one of the greatest scientific pleasures that a young author can experience.
Thalgut, 7 October 1927. Letter from Mrs. Dejerine to her daughter, Miss Sorrel-Dejerine.]