The brain of the 'porpess': Edward Tyson's description and the interpretation of the gross anatomical features of the cerebral cortex in the 17th century

Lawrence KRUGER
Department of Neurobiology, Brain Reearch Institute; and 17th and 18th Century Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Los Angeles, California, USA

The first comprehensive monograph describing a mammal and the earliest monograph published with the imprimatur of the Royal Society was Tyson's Anatomy of a Porpess, a relatively rare book, published in London in 1680. This landmark description details the "land-quadruped" main features of the various organ systems of cetaceans and comments on the history of research on these animals that appear to resemble fish only externally.

The two plates lack depiction of the brain although the osseous anatomy, including the skull, is shown with remarkable accuracy and with insightful homologies discussed in the text. Considering the relatively crude surgical instruments with which these dissections must have been carried out, the account of the brain and of the auditory system is astonishingly correct. The complex convolution pattern displayed by the cerebral cortex must have been perplexing to Tyson who subsequently described and illustrated the human brain (including a racial variant from Africa), contained in Collins' Systeme of Anatomy in 1685, and the brain of the "orang-utan" (actually a chimpanzee) in 1699.

This report provides a detailed account of the descriptions in the context of later knowledge and terminology, and attempts to interpret the impact of Tyson's findings on the interpretation of the significance of cerebral anatomy in relation to distinctive human characteristics.


Session IX -- Early Neurosciences
Saturday, 16 June 2001, 11:30 am

Sixth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Eighth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

Cologne, Germany