Sir Henry Head

Born 1861
Died 1940

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English neurologist, born August 4, 1861, London; died October 8, 1940.

Biography of Sir Henry Head

Henry Head was the eldest son and one of 11 children, many of whom did well in their own field. His parents were Henry Head, an insurance broker at Lloyd’s, and Hester Beck. Both were Quakers and lived among a community of members of the Society of Friends at Stoke Newington, and later Stamford Hill, where their house was decorated by William Morris (1834-1896). Among prominent members of the families were Sir Joseph Lister (1883-1897), a cousin on his father’s side, the surgeon Marcus Beck (1843-1893), and E. V. Lucas, the author, through his mother. Shortly after the birth of Harry (as he was known by the family) his parents left the Society for the Anglican Church.

Head was educated at Charterhouse. At one time the headmaster, W. Haigh Brown, suggested that he should be superannuated, but his exceptional abilities were recognized by a new science master, W. H. W. Poole, and the added testimonial of his housemaster, W. H. Davies, led to removal of the threat. Mr. Poole provided Head’s first formal tuition in laboratory methods.

Before going to Trinity College, Cambridge, Head spent several months at Halle in Germany, where he studied physiology and histology at the university. He spoke virtually no German on leaving home but took lessons and rapidly became fluent. In later years he was repeatedly mistaken for a German at frontier posts, errors to which his physical appearance contributed. Although he read French easily and had some fluency in that language, he was dissatisfied with his colloquial and conversational skills (particularly in comparison with his wife), and as late as 1911 he spent several weeks in France to remedy this defect.

He went to Cambridge to study the natural sciences, being an exhibitioner and later a scholar of Trinity College. His friends included a number of men destined to become distinguished, among them the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), the biologist William Bateson (1861-1926), W. B. Ransom, W. R. Sorley, the zoologist and classical scholar Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948), M. R. James, A. G. Shipley, Montagu Rendall and Stanley Leathes. Both at Charterhouse and Trinity Head indulged in wide interests. He had learned to love fine literature from his mother at an early age, but now he added rowing and other sports, Greek drama and bell-ringing. Michael Foster (1836-1907), professor of physiology, provided Head with guidance in his work, and John Newport Langley (1852-1925) and Walter Gaskell (1847-1914) were further influences.

On coming down from Cambridge with a first class in both parts of the Natural Sciences Tripos he cast around for a suitable laboratory abroad in which he might work. Dissatisfied with the opportunities offered in Germany, he visited Professor Ewald Hering (1834-1918) in Prague, who invited him to stay and work there. The next two years (1884-1886) saw his first important scientific contributions, in the field of respiratory physiology. He immediately showed himself an innovative, natural laboratory man, devising an effective method of recording respiratory movements and introducing the cuffed endotracheal tube, later to be widely used in anaesthesia. He is reputed to have introduced associative football to Prague where it has since been a popular national pastime.

Back in England Head decided to commence the study of medicine. He returned to Cambridge to complete his pre-medical studies and then received his training at University College Hospital, where he graduated in 1890. He held junior appointments at that hospital, and continued to combine his flowering practice with positions at various London hospitals until his retirement in 1925 - the national Hospital, Queen Square, Rainhill Hospital (a psychiatric hospital), and Victoria Park Hospital for Diseases of the Chest.

In 1892 Head was conferred doctor of medicine at Cambridge for his thesis on pain in visceral disease, which he later published in his journal, Brain. In it Head described his discovery of the Head's zones. In 1899 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1900, giving the Goulstonian lecture in 1901.

In 1896 Head was appointed medical registrar at the London (now Royal London) Hospital and elected physician four months later. He had previously applied for election to the staff of the National Hospital, Queen Square, but the distinguished committee placed him third of five candidates. The rejection did not deter him from a fruitful collaboration with Gordon Holmes there in later years. Head was a general physician and remained so until the end of his professional days.

Head’s investigations were confined to the sensory system and he made many observations on himself after sectioning of the superficial ramus of his radial nerve. Frustrated by the difficulties he encountered in testing sensory loss in patients with peripheral nerve injuries, Head persuaded his colleague, the surgeon James Sherren, to divide two cutaneous nerves in his left forearm. At the time this was a courageous act that was to earn him unsought publicity. For long after the operation he spent weekend sessions at St. John’s College, Cambridge, where the psychologist William Halse Rivers (1864-1922) mapped the areas of sensory loss caused by the nerve injuries and the changes occurring during recovery.

Among his contributions was the postulate of proteopathic and epicritic sensory systems to explain different susceptibilities of sensation - the first explanation of the nature of sensory dislocation.

Head frequently met and corresponded with Charles Scott Sherrington (1857-1952), for their neurological research was proceeding among similar lines at the turn of the century, though Sherrington’s subjects were laboratory animals and Head’s human patients. Like Head, Sherrington was a poet and wrote appreciative letters about his friend’s verse. Their meetings were sometimes convivial; in an updated letter to his wife Ruth, Head described a river trip to Water Eaton with the Gotches (The painter Thomas Cooper Gotch 1854-1931), followed by a meal at their home, an excursion in which Sherrington joined. The evening was “uproarious with Raleigh’s humorous poems . . . then came stories, verses and laughter until past twelve in spite of the shadow of an early train”.

Head joined the lively debate on aphasia, opposing the Broca and Wernicke schools which supported localisation in areas, but he introduced confusing terminology so that it was said that if there was not chaos before Head there certainly was after.

Other major areas of research included the effects of spinal cord injury in man. The observations, which he made with George Riddoch on men wounded in World War I, proved to be valuable when Riddoch was responsible for the care of those injured in 1939-1945. His contribution to the understanding of aphasia has been the subject of much criticism, but Critchley wrote that Head’s “faults were the merits of a constructive and brilliant mind”. Lastly, he gave the first account of the effect of positive acceleration on pilots in flight in 1919, a seemingly unlike communication but entirely consistent with his wide interests and mental powers.

Head was a born teacher, with a particular affection for the young, not only medical students and postgraduates but also children. His views on medical education were far ahead of his time. At the turn of the century he had written:

“Medical education in England suffers from the fact that the great hospitals are manned by practitioners of medicine who sometimes teach, instead of professors of science who occasionally practise”.

Fittingly, it was suggested after the World War that he might become the first professor of medicine at the Royal London Hospital. Head had already developed early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and his terms proved altogether too extravagant for his colleagues: 10 beds, three full-time assistants and the right to select his own students. Moreover, Head had recently resigned his appointment as physician (1919) and the plan would have involved a return to the hospital.

Head was well known for a weakness for possessing omniscience on all subjects, particularly in his own specialty. One day the bacteriologist William Bulloch (1868-1941) asked him over lunch at his hospital whether he had read Hagenheimer's new book on locomotar ataxia. Head replied he had only had time to glance at it. Bullock commented, "Well, you have done better than the rest of us. There is no such book." Head, however, was rarely put out by any eventuality and was a superb bedside teacher. One day in his ward with a large class of students he was examining a lady who whilst he was leaning down examining her heart, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. Without a moment's hesitation he turned to the students and said, "typical, gentlemen, typical".

Head also had interests in psychology and philosophy and in 1913 saw Virginia Woolf (882-1941), who consulted him only once and then with her husband, Leonard Woolf. He was a poet, publishing three collections privately and one publicly. Yet this is only part of the story. His interests were wide, embracing the visual arts, literature, the stage and indeed all aspects of human nature.

In 1916-1917 Head was vice president of the Royal Society and for a time was chairman of a medical society. He was editor of Brain, a famous neurological journal, from 1910 to 1925, and was knighted in 1927. He also received a large number of other honours.

Some years after retirement Head and his wife Ruth (born Mayhew) moved to Dorset, to Forston House. They had married in 1904. After the death of his friend Thomas Hardy (born 1840) in 1928 the Heads moved to Hartley Court, near Reading, to be nearer London. The first years of retirement had seen the completion of the two volumes of his Aphasia and Kindred Disorders of Speech (1926). Thereafter there were no more contributions from his pen. In the latter years of his life Parkinson’s disease condemned Head to many years of immobilization, and he experienced great difficulty of speech.

During long years of discomfort and incapacity he was sustained by his wife, family and friends, by four male nurses, and by letters from patients, including paraplegic soldiers he had treated in the war. He died on October 8, 1940, more than 20 years after the first symptoms of dire neurological disorders had appeared.

Head was generally described as short and portly, elegant in dress, bearded and moustached. He was a hardened pipe-smoker, but gave up tobacco, not without struggle, when he conceived the notion that it was impairing his mental processes. He enjoyed alcoholic drinks but abstained during the period of sensory testing by Rivers so that the response should be unquestionably clear and unimpaired. Ordinary social life had no appeal; he became impatient or bored in such circumstances, but delighted in conversation with those of like mind or with interests that appealed to him.

We thank Brian Swales for information about Henry Head's family.

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