The fitting guinea pig -- Carl Westphal's epilepsy research at the Charité, Berlin

Cornelius Borck
Institute for Science and Technology Studies, University of Bielefeld, 33501 Bielefeld, Germany

Carl Westphal, the successor of Wilhelm Griesinger as head of the clinic for nervous diseases of the Charité and the first professor of psychiatry in Prussia at the Humboldt University Berlin, pioneered animal research on epileptology in Germany. He was one of the first describers of the knee-jerk in 1875, together with, but independently of the well known Wilhelm Erb. Other contributions to neuropsychiatry are for example his description of 'agoraphobia' or his work on syphilis. Nowadays, most of his work is nearly forgotten; last not least Westphal's early death in 1889 prevented him from more contributions. In retrospect, Westphal's animal research on epileptology is especially surprising. He devoted more than a decade of his academic life to epilepsy research, concentrating on guinea pigs and working within the framework of the reflex concept of epilepsy. Westphal followed Brown-Séquard's studies on the spinal origin of seizures, and there is some evidence that he initially wanted to disprove such a concept. He used triggering mechanisms instead of lesions (Brown-Séquard's method) to kindle seizures. He started with knocking on the animal's forehead with a little hammer, which resulted in fits immediately. A few weeks after the initial experiment, he could trigger similar convulsions just by touching a sensible zone of the skin of his 'trained' guinea pigs. With these experiments Westphal thought to prove the reflex concept of epilepsy. Anatomical studies of his animals showed him the medulla oblongata to be the affected center, confirming the idea of seizure generation in the medulla oblongata. The medulla oblongata as center for the most vital reflexes also controled seizures. It is this theoretical background where Westphal's work lines up with Schröder van der Kolk's, although it is not clear to what extend the latter influenced Westphal's studies in Berlin. However, these studies show how widely the reflex concept of epileptology had spread over Europe and how it could claim to be in line with experimental work.


Poster Session II
Friday, 20 June 1997, 16.10 - 16.40

Second Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and 6th Meeting of the European Club on the History of Neurology (ECHN)

Leiden, The Netherlands