This part of the journey starts in France, Annecy (Haut Savoie), and Paris, and continues in Germany, Berlin and Neustadt. We get off the train, where we meet
Cécile Mugnier Vogt
Portrait of Cécile Mugnier-Vogt
Cécile Mugnier-Vogt spent most of her life as a scientist in Germany, where she developed a very productive career that spanned 60 years, despite going through two world wars and a very tough social and economical situation in Germany. Together with her husband Oskar, she made groundbreaking discoveries in the field of neuroanatomy and neuropathology. Cécile and Oskar Vogt’s work focused largely on the fields of clinical and comparative neuroanatomy as well as the Reizphysiologie (stimulus physiology) of the mammalian brain, and genetic research based on evolutionary biology.
The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association, in Berlin, has established the Cécile Vogt Programme aimed at promoting the scientific careers of women and enhancing the number of successful female candidates in high-ranking positions.
The Neurobiologisches Laboratorium in Berlin
In 1899, upon arriving in Berlin, Cécile and Oskar Vogt established a Neurobiological Laboratory (Neurobiologisches Laboratorium), that was at the beginning a private institution for the anatomical study of the whole human brain. The couple collaborated scientifically from 1899 to 1959, and they started their brain research studies depending solely on the earnings from private practice and on the support of the Krupp family.
In 1902, the Neurobiologisches Laboratorium became administratively attached to the Physiological Institute of Berlin University. From 1914, the Laboratory was expanded to include the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Hirnforschung (Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research, KWI) and in 1931 it was completely integrated into the newly constructed Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin-Buch, which had been expanded to encompass some ten research departments.
This institution, directed by Oskar Vogt, was the first specialized institute for brain research in the world. All methodological approaches then available were applied, from genetics to neuropsychology, from electrophysiology to clinical investigations, in order to discover how the brain functions.
Career overview and scientific recognition
Cécile Mugnier-Vogt was a brilliant scientist whose contribution greatly enhanced the advancements at the KWI. Nevertheless, she had a paid position as department head (Abteilungsleiter) only between 1919 and 1937. For the rest of her scientific career, she worked without remuneration, living on her husband’s earnings. She and Lisa Meitner were the only two female scientists in the KWI. In the years up to the end of World War II, in Prussia, women were not granted the access to regular university education, let alone the possibility to have a scientific career.
Cécile Mugnier-Vogt had a long and productive scientific career that spanned 60 years. She and her husband Oskar always managed to be productive during and between the 2 world wars, even after the First World War, when the treaties left Germany in a disastrous economical condition that put the basis also for the growth of the National Socialist Party. Cécile Mugnier-Vogt made groundbreaking discoveries in the field of neuroanatomy and neuropathology. During the first thirty years of their scientific collaboration, Cécile and Oskar Vogt’s work focused largely on the fields of clinical and comparative neuroanatomy as well as the Reizphysiologie (stimulus physiology) of the mammalian brain and genetic research based on evolutionary biology. Her work on the connections in the thalamic nuclei and on extrapyramidal pathways greatly contributed to the knowledge on how different parts of the brain are interrelated. Her studies on brain cytoarchitectonic combined with the electrical stimulation led to a major progress on functional anatomy of the brain.
During her career Cécile Vogt received several acknowledgements of her scientific value, briefly described below.
- In 1924 she became co-editor of the Journal für Psychologie und Neurologie (Journal of psychology and neurology), of which her husband was editor. The journal changed title in 1954 to Journal für Hirnforschung (Journal for Brain Research), and it was directed jointly by the Vogts.
- In 1932 Cécile Vogt, together with Oskar Vogt, was elected to the German Academy of Sciences.
- In 1950 the couple was awarded the the German Democratic Republic’s National Prize First Class.
- Cécile Vogt also received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Freiburg and Jena and the Humboldt University of Berlin.
Oskar and Cécile Vogt
Contribution to Science
Cécile Mugnier-Vogt began her doctoral work while she was still in France, and her research was aimed to study the myelination in the cerebral hemispheres. She compared the brain myelination at early developmental age in different mammals like cats, dogs, rabbits and humans. Her main conclusions were that; i) myelination is not complete in juvenile mammals, ii) myelination occurs at different stages of development in different parts of the brain, and iii) the myelination process appears to be very similar in all studied animals. This last finding was in contrast with the dominant opinion at that time, that the human brain was fundamentally different from other mammals. She wrote in her doctoral thesis:
“Flechsig, as we know, established that in the human brain the myelination does not happens synchronously in every part of the brain cortex. MM. Righetti et Monakow confirmed this fact. Lately, M. Siemerling recognized that the myelination does not happen at the same time in the different centers, but he disagreed with all the conclusions drawn by M. Flechsig. Without entering into the details of this issue, we want to say that from one side, our studies on myelination in the human brain confirmed the different fields of myelination described by Flechsig, and from the other side to establish that the difference in the timing of myelination in humans is comparable to the animal one. In agreement with Flechsig, we found that in the human brain the myelination occurs very early in the olfactory system, in the motor, visual and auditory cortex. If we establish a homology between the 3 first centers in humans and animals, we cannot find contractions. It may be not the case for the auditory cortex.
Our comparative study on myelination does not confirm the Flechsig theory that the human brain is fundamentally different from animal brain. On the opposite, our study confirms the relatedness between humans and other mammals, in agreement with the opinion of our best anatomists.” (translated from French)
At the Neurobiological Laboratory in Berlin, where she moved before graduation, she continued to study the histology of mammalian brain, using the three more advanced techniques of the time: 1) demonstration of myelin sheaths by Weigert methods, 2) Nissl for staining neuronal body 3) Marchi method, which, by outlining degenerating nerve fibers and their tracts, could be used to establish connections between various brain areas and neuronal centers.
Examples of brain region mapping (left) and cortical mieloarchitecture (right) (from C.& O Vogt, 1919)
Korbinian Brodmann was hired at Neurobiologisches Laboratorium in 1901, and together with him, the Vogts defined many cytoarchitectonic subdivisions in mammalian and human brain that were previously unknown. Cécile and Oskar Vogt main thesis was that these different cytoarchitectonically defined areas are responsible for particular physiological responses and functions, so they were willing to demonstrate this experimentally through cortical electrical stimulation. They were able to accumulate many new observations of pioneering value for neurophysiology, using a low intensity electrical stimulation on monkey and cat brains.
In the same years Sir Charles Sherrington began to use this technique in the United Kingdom. Since the approach was completely new and there were many experimental pitfalls, these observations were frequently ambiguous and difficult to interpret. According to Igor Klatzo, a scientist that worked with the Vogts in Neustadt from 1945 to 1948:
“It was the genius of Cécile, which, at this critical period of the ‘Neurobiological Laboratory’, provided the cement which allowed to solidify these new ‘fluid’ observations into a new understanding about the interrelationship and interaction of various synchronously working region of the brain. The cement was Cécile morphological work on the extrapyramidal system, which had fascinated her already in Paris. She continued on this subject in Berlin, while being involved concurrently with electrical stimulation studies. In her first paper on the myeloarchitecture of the thalamus, she clearly identified several nuclei of the thalamus and some of their connections, by the application of the Marchi method. This work, elucidating the morphological background for cortico-thalamic circuitry, was significant for the interpretation of some cortical electro-stimulation observations, and was blazing a trail for the modern understanding of the physiology of the thalamus.” (Klatzo, 2002)
Consistently with the interest in the functional correlates of neuroanatomical substrates, Cécile Mugnier-Vogt was taking advantage of her neurology training to correlate the patients’ clinical diagnoses and the post-exitus neuropathological findings. In fact, collaborative patients with focal neurological diseases represent, in the past and current days, a priceless source of information about the function of specific brain areas. Cécile Vogt in particular was interested in the extrapyramidal pathways and she started to collect brains of patients that had died with clinical conditions that were ascribable to a damage of these pathways. She published several ground-breaking papers on the pathology of the corpus striatum and its correlations with the infantile pseudobulbar palsy: she focused on the lesions of the striatum as a cause of the condition, and in some cases she examined brains from patients’ family members, whose death had been caused by the same condition. This allowed her to make some assumptions on hereditary diseases that, regardless of their validity in the specific case of these patients, were very innovative and visionary for the epoch. For example, in Oppeheim and Vogt (1911), she examined the brains of a patient with infantile pseudobulbar palsy, using different histological staining methods: method Kultschitzky and van Gieson, for neurons and matrix, respectively. Through the meticulous anatomical study of a patient’s brain, compared with brains not affected by the disease, she concluded that the motor disorders that characterize the disease can be attributed to the loss of gray matter in the nucleus caudate in the striatum and putamen. Since the major impairments due to the disease are at the expenses of speech, deglutition and mastication, based on her histological findings she also concluded that the areas dedicated to those functions must be localized in the anterior part of the nucleus caudate and putamen.
Cécile Mugnier-Vogt also gave a histopathological interpretation of the lesions of these nuclei that was quite in contrast with the ones given by some contemporary scientists. They attributed the pathology to a scar subsequent to an old encephalomalacia, whereas she hypothesized instead that the nervous cells most likely disappeared following a dystrophic process. She also commented that this process was even more interesting since it appeared to be transmitted hereditarily. Moreover, she pointed out that a specific neurodegenerative process may be acquired genetically, rather than hypothesizing a generic hereditary tendency to a ‘weak’ vascular system.
It is worth mentioning that Cécile and Oskar Vogt envisaged the developments in molecular genetic mechanisms and laid the foundation for modern, genetically oriented neuroscience, and that they created, among others, a division of Human Genetics at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin-Buch.
Cécile and Oskar Vogt with their team and their dog Annettchen in Neustad
The above cited papers on the basal ganglia and on the thalamic nuclei became “classics” soon after the publication, and established Cécile Mugnier-Vogt’s name in the world of neurology. Based on her scientific production and on the testimony of her coworkers, Cécile Vogts appears to have been an outstanding scientist that made groundbreaking discoveries for modern neuroscience, and the fruitful collaboration with her husband was suitable for her to develop her potential, since it was practically impossible for a woman at the beginning of the 20th century to establish herself as a scientist without being in some way supported by a man, i.e. through marriage.
Helga Satzinger (1998), reporting the words of Vogts’ collaborator Igor Klatzo, writes:
“…We can assume that Cécile Vogt’s contributions were very substantial indeed, for otherwise we would doubtless hear a good deal more about Oskar and his scientific greatness than about her as a ‘congenial partner’….”
‘It was not easy to get close, on a human level, to Dr Cécile Vogt’s highly intellectual nature. Her profound understanding of human beings was paired with a probing analysis, which many a visitor or staff member found it difficult to withstand. This cool matter-of-fact manner concealed a warm heart, however.’ Clearly, many people had trouble accepting a woman scientist of equal or even superior talents.”
Cécile Vogt commemorative stamp
Biography. Augustine Marie Cécile Mugnier was born in Annecy, France, on March 27 1875. Her father was already in his seventies at the time of her birth and he died when she was only 2 years old. Thus, Cécile never remembered her father and she did not know until 1933 that her parents never legally married, when the National Socialists requested her to proof her Aryan descent and she was unable to provide a birth certificate. Cécile Mugnier grew up with a rich and very religious aunt, that wanted her to take her vows as nun, but this destiny was very far from her ambitions. Indeed, she was very critical against religion and she refused to take her communion at 14 and wrote an essay severely disapproving God for allowing so much misery in the world. After this episode, she was disinherited and returned to live with her mother that managed to prepare her for the science baccalauréat examinations with private teachers. Cécile Mugnier began to study medicine in Paris at the age of eighteen, and she was one of the first females admitted. The already famous French neurologist Pierre Marie offered her to work on his research team at Bicêtre. There, in 1899 she met her future husband Oskar Vogt, a 29 year old German scientist that was spending a period of time in the laboratory of Augusta and Jules Dejerine in Paris
Mugnier-Vogt completed her doctoral work in Berlin, Germany, where she followed her husband Oskar in 1899. For Cécile, the decision to settle in Germany probably meant the heaviest sacrifice, leaving her home country and adapting herself to Oskar’s fatherland, for which she had no special love or admiration.
She earned a doctorate in 1900 in Paris for a dissertation in neuroanatomy and she was licensed to practice medicine. The proportion of women gaining doctorates in medicine at the time was still only 6% in France, thirty years after women were first admitted to medical studies.
Cécile and Oskar Vogt worked very productively at the Neurobiologisches Laboratorium/KWI for about thirty years. Nevertheless, after massive assaults from the National Socialists in the years after 1933, during which they were receiving threatening inspections and accusations, they were forced to leave the KWI für Hirnforschung in Berlin, and from 1937 continued their work at the privately financed Institut für Hirnforschung und Allgemeine Biologie (Institute for Brain Research and General Biology) at Neustadt near Freiburg in the Black Forest. To better understand the gravity of the National Socialists mobbing, it is worth to explain that the couple was very liberal, pacifists and truly believing that science has to be cosmopolitan. They always hired their collaborators based on their capability rather than their nationality or religion, and there were Jewish scientists in their institution for most of the duration of the National Socialist dictatorship despite the continuous threats by the Nazi and false accusations by other scientists close to the Establishment that wanted to take over the Vogts’ positions at the KWI.
Since the early 1930s, Swedish, Swiss and American research institutions offered the Vogts positions to continue their research abroad as the political situation in Germany deteriorated rapidly, but they chose to stay in Germany and moved to Neustadt. They made this choice, among other reasons, to be able to bring their enormous collection of brain sections and insects, and because the collaborators were willing to follow them there. In reality, they had to leave a big part of their collection at the KWI in Berlin, whose director became Hugo Spatz after the Vogts left.
Marguerite (left) and Marthe (right) Vogt
Before meeting Oskar, Cécile Muglier-Vogt gave birth to a girl, Claire, which Oskar adopted after the marriage. They had two more daughters together: Marthe and Marguerite, both of whom became successful scientists. Claire moved back to France when she was adult and there is no further information about her life.
Cécile died in 1962 in Cambridge, England, where she had gone to live with her daughter Marthe, after Oskar’s death.
We are grateful to Arjan Vink at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, Frankfurt am Main and to Susanne Uebele at the Archiv der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Berlin-Dahlem.
To cite this profile, please use the following format:
Favero, M., Mele, S. and Metitieri, T. (2017). Profile of Cécile Mugnier Vogt. In WiNEu, European Women in Neuroscience, Untold stories: the Women Pioneers of Neuroscience in Europe. Retrieved from https://wineurope.eu/vogt-2/
- Freund C.S., Vogt C. (1911): Ein neuer Fall von État marbré des Corpus striatum. [Un nouvau cas d’état marbré du corps strié]. Journal für Psychologie und Neurologie 18: 489-500.
- Oppenheim H., Vogt C. (1911): Wesen und Lokalisation der kongenitalen und infantilen Pseudobulbärparalyse. Nature et localisation de la paralysie pseudobulbaire congenitale et infantile. Journal für Psychologie und Neurologie 18: 293-301.
- Vogt Mugnier C. (1900): Étude sur la miélinisation des hémisphères cérébraux. Doctoral thesis.
- Vogt C. (1909): La myeloarchitecture de thalamus cercopitheque. Journal für Psychologie und Neurologie 12: 285-324.
- Vogt C. (1911): Quelques considerations generales ä propos du Syndrome du corps strie. Journal für Psychologie und Neurologie 18: 479-488.
- Vogt C., Vogt O. (1907): Zur Kenntnis der elektrisch erregbaren Hirnrindengebieten bei den Säugentieren. Journal für Psychologie und Neurologie 8: 227-456.
- Vogt C., Vogt O. (1919): Allgemeinere Ergebnisse unserer Hirnforschung. Journal für Psychologie und Neurologie 25: 277-461.
- Brodmann K: Vergleichende Lokalisationlehre der Grosshirnrnrinde in ihren Prinzipien dargestellt auf Grund des Zellbaues. Barth Publ, Leipzig (1909).
- Finger S. (2002): Women and the History of the Neurosciences. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 11(1): 80-86.
- van Gijn J. (2003): The Vogts: Cécile (1875–1962) and Oskar (1870–1959). Journal of Neurology 250: 1261–1262.
- Jones E.G. (2003): Two Minds. Nature 421: 19-20.
- Klatzo I. (in collaboration with Gabriele Zu Rhein). (2002): Cécile and Oskar Vogt: The Visionaries of Modern Neuroscience. Wien: Springer-Verlag.
- Kreutzberg G.W., Klatzo I., Kleihues P. (1992): Oskar and Cecile Vogt, Lenin’s Brain and the Bumble-Bees of the Black Forest. Brain Pathology 2: 363-371.
- Satzinger H. (1998): Femininity and Science: The Brain Researcher Cécile Vogt (1875-1962). Translation of: Weiblichkeit und Wissenschaft. In: Bleker J. (ed.): Der Eintritt der Frauen in die Gelehrtenrepublik. Husum: Matthiesen.