The study of women's brains in Golgi's times

Department of Morphological and Biomedical Sciences, University of Verona, Verona, Italy

When Golgi lived and worked, declarations and studies on the brain of women were not exactly encouraging for the female human race. For example, the renowned French psychologist and anthropologist Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) wrote in 1879: “In the most intelligent of races… there are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains….All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women… recognize today that they represent the most inferior forms of human evolution.” Paul J. Moebius (1853-1907) made also strong statements on women being mentally deficient. Golgi’s mentor, the famous neuropsychiatrist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) elaborated on mental female inferiority in the book he coauthored with Guglielmo Ferrero on “Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman”. Despite such discouraging context, however, Camillo Golgi seems to have been definitely less prejudiced, and accepted women as students in his laboratory. The embarrassing beliefs of those times on the female brain could theoretically be rescued by studies on the elite brains, regarded as a way to unravel brain localization of talents and skills. Needless to say, studies on the brain of famous women were, however, very few. Gustaf Magnus Retzius (1842-1919), examined the brain of the Russian mathematician Sonja Kowaleskaya (1850-1891). James Papez (1883-1958) investigated the brain of Helen Hamilton Gardener (née Alice Chenoweth; 1853-1925), American freethinker , fighter for women’s rights and suffragist, who had also written a book on “Sex in Brain” in 1893. Overall, the opinions and investigations on the brains of women do not really seem to have paved the way to modern studies on gender differences in the brain. They provide, however, an interesting premise to the recent resurrection of gender- and sex-targeted neurobiology, which is nowadays in the forefront of neurosciences.

Session Ib
Golgi-Cajal and the Neurosciences
Thursday, 22 June 2006, 12.00 - 12.30 pm

11th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Pavia, Italy, 2006