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Derek Ernst Denny-Brown

Born 1901
Died 1981

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British-American neurologist, born 1901, Christchurch, New Zealand; died April 20, 1981.

Biography of Derek Ernst Denny-Brown

After earning bachelors degrees in medicine and surgery from Otago University in Dunedin, New Zealand, Derek Ernest Denny-Brown in 1924 received a Beit Fellowship to study in the laboratory of Sir Charles Scott Sherrington (1857-1952) at Oxford.

While at Oxford, working under rather poor conditions, Denny-Brown observed and defined the distinctive properties of red and white muscles, validated Sherrington’s theoretical concept of the motor unit, and developed the technique of antidromic stimulation for the analysis of motor neurone responses. The fellowship at Oxford culminated in a DPhil degree, the co-authorship of a classic book, Reflex Activity of the Spinal Cord, and 16 scientific papers.

From his fellowship at Oxford, Denny-Brown returned to clinical medicine. In 1928 he became resident medical officer at the National Hospital, Queen Square, London. This was the leading centre of neurology, its staff including Samuel Alexander Kinnier Wilson (1878-1937), Gordon Morgan Holmes (1876-1965), Sir Charles Symonds, James Stanfield Collier (1870-1935), and Francis Walshe. Denny-Brown served as a lecturer at the National Hospital from 1931 to 1939, and as a registrar at Queen Square and Guy’s Hospital from 1931 to 1935. From 1935 to 1941 he held the positions of assistant physician, National Hospital, and neurologist, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital London.

In 1936 Denny-Brown received a Rockefeller Fellowship to study with John Fulton at Yale University. Here he worked with Fulton and a neurosurgeon, Harry Botterell, studying the effects of ablating portions of the pre-central cerebral cortex in primates. When Denny-Brown returned to England in 1937, he resumed his clinical practice and teaching at the National Hospital, Queen Square.

In 1939 Denny-Brown was offered a professorship at Harvard. Due to the outbreak of World War II, however, he was called to active service in the Royal Army Medical Corps. It was only through the intervention of Winston Churchill that he was able to assume his responsibilities in Boston in 1941. He was called back to service in 1945, when there was a shortage of physicians in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and he was assigned to organise the neurological services in India and Burma. Upon his return to Boston in 1946 he was appointed James Jackson Putnam Professor of Neurology, a position that he held until his retirement in 1967.

Denny-Brown soon gained a formidable reputation as a teacher, clinician and investigator. In the early 1960s, of 41 departments of neurology in the United States, 19 had chairmen who had received a major part of their training under his direction at the Neurological Unit. When he retired from Boston City Hospital in 1967 he became the James Jackson Putnam Professor Emeritus at Harvard Medical School. Denny-Brown died of multiple myeloma on April 20, 1981.

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