Magendi and the chemists: early chemical analyses of the cerebrospinal fluid

Theodore L. SOURKES
Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Shortly after 1825, when François Magendie (1783-1855) described the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), he solicited the aid of chemists to analyze it. This was consonant with his view, a reflection of the philosophy of the Paris ideologues that evolved at the end of the eighteenth century, that physics and chemistry have a legitimate place in physiological research, but without dominating it. Magendie's interest in the composition of CSF stemmed from his concern as to whether this fluid is derived from serum, or if it is a fluid sui generis. The chemists he approached were P J Pelletier (1788-1842) and J P Couerbe (1805-1867) of the School of Pharmacy; M E Chevreul (1786-1889) of the Museum of Natural History; and J L Lassaigne (1800-1859) of the Veterinary School of Alfort. References in the literature indicated the results obtained by two of these men. Lassaigne analyzed CSF collected by Magendie from a horse (1826). Couerbe, who in 1834 had published an extensive report on the chemical composition of human brain, provided Magendie with some data on human CSF (1836). Their analyses showed that CSF differed from serum chemically. But even before their work the chemist-physician J F John (1782-1847), of the University of Berlin, had published a brief paper on "the internal hydrocephalic fluid of a child" (1818). From his study of this material John concluded that the hydrocephalic fluid is different from the "moisture of the brain of slaughtered calves." The comparison was valid, because he had already shown that calf brain is very similar in composition to that of humans. He concluded that the hydropic fluid originated as an exudate of the water of the blood.

Research aided by a grant from the National Parkinson Foundation, Miami, Florida.

Session III -- Early 19th Century
Monday, 12 June 2000, 3:00 - 3:30 pm

Fifth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Providence, Rhode Island, USA