M.E. Sabbatini, PhD
David Ferrier was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1843. While he was a medical student, Ferrier began to work as a scientific assistant to the influent free-thinking philosopher and psychologist Alexander Bain (1818-1903), one of the founders of associative psychology. Around 1860, psychology as a science was getting its start mostly in Germany, with the scientifically rigorous research of Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894), who as trained as a physicist, and of Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920). They focused their work mainly in the area of sensory psychophysiology, because it was the most adequate one for the approach based on the paradigms of experimental physics. Both researchers worked at the University of Heidelberg, and this probably led Bain to instigate young Ferrier to spend a time in their laboratories, a decision which was certainly important for his late development as a neuroscientist.
Upon returning to Scotland, Ferrier graduated in medicine at the University of Edinburgh. A few years later, in 1870, he moved in to London and started to work as a neurologist at the King's College Hospital and at the National Hospital for the Paralyzed and Epileptic. The later was the first hospital in England to be dedicated exclusively for the treatment of neurological diseases.
In that period, the great neurologist John Hughlings Jackson (1835-1911), who also worked in the same hospital as Ferrier,
was giving the finishing touches to what was to became his grandiose theoretical conception on the sensorimotor
functions of the nervous system, with basis on the knowledge derived from clinical experience. Jackson proposed
that there was an anatomical and physiological substrate for the localization of brain functions, which was hierarchically
Influenced by Jackson, who became his close friend and mentor, Ferrier decided to embark on an ambitious experimental program with the aim of extending the results of two German physiologists, Eduard Hitzig (1838-1907) and Gustav Fritsch. In 1870, they had attracted wide attention from the scientific community, by publishing their results of localized electrical stimulation of the motor cortex in dogs. Ferrier had also the intention to test Jackson´s idea that epilepsy had a cortical origin, as it was suggested by his clinical observations.
Coincidently, Ferrier had received a proposal to direct the laboratory of experimental
neurology at the West Riding Lunatic Asylum, a psychiatric institution located in Yorkshire. The hospital's director
was a good friend of Ferrier, James
Crichton-Browne (1840-1937). Working
under good material conditions and having an abundance of animals for experimentation (mainly monkeys and dogs).
Ferrier started his experiments in 1873, by doing lesions and electrical stimulations of the cortex. At the end
of the same year, he reported his first results to local meetings and in the hospital's own journal.
He had succeded in demonstrating, in a spectacular manner, that the low intensity faradic stimulation of the cortex in both animal species indicated a rather precise and specific map for motor functions. The same areas, upon being lesioned, caused the loss of the functions which were elicited by stimulation. Ferrier was also able to demonstrate that the high-intensity stimulation of motor cortical areas caused repetitive movements in the neck, face and members which were highly evocative of epileptic fits seen by neurologists in human beings and animals, which probably were due to a spread of the focus of stimulation, an interpretatio very much in line with Jacksonanian thought.
These and other investigations in the same line gave international fame to Ferrier and assured his permanent place in the pantheon of the greatest neurophysiologists and experimental neurologists of all times. He was elected a member to the prestigious Royal Society at the tender age of 33. Indeed, he was also the first physiologist to make an audacious (if scientifically incorrect) of transposing cortical maps obtained in monkeys to its analogous in the human brain. This proposal soon led to practical consequences in clinical neurology.and neurosurgery. A Scottish surgeon, Sir William Macewen (1848-1924) demonstrated in 1879, and later, two British physicians, one a clinical neurologist, Hughes Bennett, and the other a surgeon, Rickman J. Godlee demonstrated in 1884, that it was possible to use a precise clinical examination to determine the possible site of a tumor or lesion in the brain, by observing its effects on the side and extension of alterations in motor and sensory functions. This method of functional neurological mapping is still used today. Jackson and Ferrier were present at the first operation performed by Godlee on November 25th, 1884. Godlee was a nephew of the eminent physician Lord Joseph Lister (1827–1912), the discoverer of surgical asepsis by using phenol, a technique which, for the first time, allowed surgeons to prevent the terrible and devastatingly lethal surgical infections.
These practical results of animal research became important to justify and absolving Ferrier before a very noisy public persecution carried out by antivivisectionist societies agains him and other scientists, who were accused of inhumane use of animals for experimental medicine.
Of Ferrier's publications, two books are notable. The first one, published in 1876, "The Functions of the Brain", describes his experimental results and became very influential in the suceeding years, in such a way that today it is considered one of the classics of neuroscience. In 1886 he published a new edition, considerably expanded and reviewed. The second book, which was published two years later, was titled "The Localization of Brain Disease", and it had as its subject the clinical applications of cortical localization, and trying to integrate the ideas of his idol and preceptor, Hughlings Jackson, how he had desired from the very beginning. Together with his friends Hughlings Jackson and Crichton-Browne, Ferrier was one of the founders of the Brain journal, which was dedicated to the interaction between experimental and linical neurology (still being published today).Its inaugural issue came to light in 1878.
Ferrier abandoned progressively experimental research a few years after that. He died in 1924 at old age, victim of a pneumonia, in London.