Untold Stories: the Women Pioneers of Neuroscience in Europe

These are the stories of seven women born before 1900, neuroscientists highly devoted to their work, who published pioneering works, largely forgotten.
This is a journey in time and space: it takes place in the second half of the 19th century, to St. Petersburg, Paris, London, Berlin, Liepzig and Padua.



The journey starts in a physiology laboratory in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Maria Mikhailovna Manasseina (or de Manacéïne) is carrying out a series of experimental studies on prolonged sleep deprivation in puppies. Maria Mikhailovna Manasseina (1843-1903) was one of the first women in Europe to receive a doctorate in Medicine. She published seminal works in the field of biochemistry and physiology of sleep. She discovered that the prolonged sleep deprivation rapidly leads to death, and demonstrated that sleep is more important than food for the preservation of life. She published the first comprehensive handbook on sleep in 1889, in Russian. The book was then translated in English and widely distributed in Europe: de Manacéïne M. Sleep: Its Physiology, Pathology, Hygiene and Psychology (Walter Scott, London 1897).


 The journey continues to Paris, in the laboratory of Joseph Jules Dejerine, covered by neuroanatomical illustrations. Augusta Marie Dejerine-Klumpke (1859-1927) was born in San Francisco, United States of America, and in 1871 moved to Paris with her family. After concluding her medical studies and laboratory work, she became the first female medical doctor in a Parisian Hospital. She described for the first time the radicular paralysis of the lower brachial plexus, named after her Klumpke’s palsy, established standardized protocols for the rehabilitation of patients with spinal cord injury, and contributed to the two-volume book Anatomie des centres nerveux (Anatomy of the Central Nervous System), (Masson, Paris 1895).


 In  the region of Picardie, about 60 km from Paris, we visit the Clermont Asylum for mentally ill individuals, called “the Penal Colony for Psychiatrists” by Constance Pascal (1877-1937). She was born in Pitesti, Romania, and later she moved to Paris to continue her medical studies. She specialized in psychiatry and became the first female psychiatrist in France. She tried to reform the Asylum, prohibiting punishments and restraints. She conducted a series of clinical studies on dementia praecox from nosology and organic basis to social aspects. These studies were collected in her influential monograph: La démence précoce: étude clinique et médico-légale (Paris, Alcan 1911).


 From Paris we proceed to London, at Bedford College, following the footsteps of the first British woman who earned a doctorate in psychology and became professor of psychology. Beatrice Edgell (1871-1948) played a prominent role in applied and academic psychology. She established one of the first experimental laboratories and contributed to the calibration of the Wheatstone–Hipp chronoscope, increasing the precision in mental chronometry. She studied the associative memory from a developmental perspective, recruiting over 1000 children aged 8-12 years and published her results in: The experimental study of memory. Child Study, 1913, V, 84–89, 118–125.


 Back to continental Europe, we visit the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research founded in Germany by a visionary couple, the Vogts. Cécile Mugnier Vogt (1875-1962) was born in Annecy, France, and began to study medicine in Paris. After marrying the German neurologist Oskar Vogt, she moved to Berlin and received her medical license in 1920. She conducted systematic clinical-anatomical research and published important studies on the myeloarchitectonic organization of the thalamus, on the pathology of the corpus striatum and on the cytoarchitecture of the cerebral cortex. The detailed mapping study of the cerebral cortex was published in a very influential monograph: Vogt C., Vogt O. Allgemeine Ergebnisse unserer Hirnforschung. J. Psychol. Neurol., 1919, 25 (Suppl. 1), 273-462


 We remain in Germany and move to Leipzig, where Wilhelm Wundt founded the first laboratory for experimental psychology. Only a limited number of women were admitted to the scientific work in the laboratory. Anna Berliner (1888-1977) was the only woman to pursue a doctorate with Wundt. She conducted remarkable research on imagery, visual perception, and advertising psychology. She published one of the earliest studies on imagery: The influence of mental work on the mental image. American Journal of Psychology, 1918, 29: 355-370. Upon graduation she continued her career in Japan and United States.


 Our journey ends in the laboratory of experimental psychology established by Vittorio Benussi in Padua, where new instruments were designed to measure behavioral and physiological responses. Silvia De Marchi (1897–1936) was the first woman to obtain a degree in experimental psychology in Italy. She carried out an extensive study on psychology of testimony and used magnitude estimation, with the corresponding psychophysical function, to measure visual dot density. These latter experiments were collected in the paper: Le valutazioni numeriche di collettività (Numerical evaluations of collectivities). Archivio Italiano di Psicologia, 1929, 7, 177-225.


 To be continued…

We hope to continue our virtual journey and meet other scientists: readers are very welcome to help with suggestions, contribution of original material…

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