- A dictionary of medical eponyms

Marshall Hall

Born  1790-02-18
Died  1857-08-11

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    English physiologist, born February 18, 1790, Basford, near Nottingham, died August 11, 1857, Brighton, East Sussex.

    Biography of Marshall Hall

    Marshall Hall, the son of the Wesleyan cotton manufacturer Robert Marshall, who was the first to use chloride gas on a large scale for bleaching cotton. Nothing is known of his mother, other than that she was eighty-four when she died. Hall was the first to advance a scientific explanation of reflex action.

    Marshall Hall received his boyhood education until the age of fourteen at the Reverend J. Blanchards Academy at Nottingham. The then entered a chemists shop at Newark-on-Trent, and in 1809 began to study medicine at the Edinburgh University Medical School in October 1809. There he graduated Doctor of Medicine with distinction in 1812. He spent two years as Resident House Physician to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary

    Following these two years of practice he went for the customary Continental tour (1814-1815), travelling in France and Germany, visiting the medical schools of Paris, Göttingen, and Berlin. He travelled alone and on foot from Paris to Göttingen. In 1815 he returned to England, settling in practice in Nottingham, where he was elected an honorary physician to the Nottingham General Hospital on October 12, 1825. His reputation as a physician was established by means of his clinical acumen and ability, as well as by his 1817 book on diagnosis, then a new topic. His fame also rested on his advocacy of diminished bleeding, based on the revolutionary statistical analyses of the French physician P. C. A. Louis.

    In 1826 Hall moved to London where he continued in private practice until his death in 1853. He occasionally lectured at medical schools, but he was never on the staff of a hospital.

    Hall denounced the practice of bloodletting in Observations on Blood-Letting (1830). In his Experimental Essay on the Circulation of the blood (1831) he was the first to show that the capillaries bring the blood into contact with the tissues.

    Hall conducted his large private practice from his home, where he also carried out his experimental work. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1832 but, although he served on its member of the council, he received none of its honours. In 1841 he was made a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London and delivered there the Gulstonian and Croonian lectures.

    Marshall Hall retired from practice in 1853 and died four years later of a cancerous oesophageal stricture. He was survived by his wife, whom he had married in 1829, and by his son, also named Marshall Hall, who became a famous barrister. The Marshall Hall fund provided until 1911 a prize every five years for the best work done in the anatomy, physiology, and pathology of the nervous system. Recipients include J. Hughlings Jackson, David Ferrier, and C. S. Sherrington.

    As a person, Hall was considered a difficult man, insufferably conceited and overly aware of his brilliance and capacity, and with more opponents than friends and supporters. Yet Thomas Wakley, founder and editor of Lancet, was a firm friend and supported Hall’s claim that the merits of his work equaled those of William Harvey’s.  His wife’s biography of him, as might be expected, is entirely laudatory.

    A prolific writer, Hall published over 150 papers and nineteen books.

    Hall’s importance lies in his studies of the physiology of reflex function. These began in 1832 and continued for twenty-five years; he claimed that he had spent 25.000 leisure hours on them.

    The concept of the reflex has its origins in antiquity, but Hall’s work was built upon the advances made in this field by Robert Whytt of Edinburgh, Albrecht von Haller of Göttingen, George Procháska of Prague, J. J. C. Legallois of Paris, and many others. By 1830 considerable knowledge existed of the isolated spinal cord and the reflex act, although virtually nothing was known of the underlying morphology. It was Hall’s contribution to elaborate the reflex concept, from an isolated action of the cord as he found it, into an established and essential physiological function.

    Hall’s numerous experiments were carried out on such animals as turtles, hedgehogs, frogs, toads, lizards, and eels, and from them Hall formulated what he considered to be an independent spinal cord system of nerves subserving only reflex function. This mechanism had nothing to do with the nerves of volition and sensation or with consciousness and psychic activity, functions which were mediated by the brain.

    Hall was the first to provide a basis for the concept of the neural arc of the spinal cord. Admittedly Charles Bell had hinted at this in 1826 and Hall had made use of the earlier work of François Magendie and of Bell concerning the motor and sensory spinal roots of the cord, but his originality is unassailable. Unfortunately, he paid no attention to the new knowledge of the microscopic appearances of nervous tissue in the 1830’s, and he totally ignored the possible influence of such cerebral mechanisms as psychic activity.

    Halls insistence that the cerebrospinal axis is a functional segmental series, although not original, was recognized by Sherrington as a significant contribution.

    Hall’s versatility and wide range of interests was impressing. Besides his work on medical topics he wrote on Greek grammar and was always ready to use his pen and his tongue to attack social evils. He campaigned for the abolition of slavery in America and of flogging in the British army, as well as for the improvement of sewage disposal and for the safety of railway compartments.

    His discovery that a headless newt moves when its skin is being pricked led to a series of experiments that he summarized in the paper On the Function of the Medulla Oblongata and Medulla Spinalis, and on the Excito-Motory System of Nerves, 1837. This research served as the basis for his theory of reflex action, which stated that the spinal cord consists of a chain of units and that each unit functions as a independent reflex arc; that the function of each arc arises from the activity of sensory and motor nerves and the segment of the spinal cord from which these nerves originate; and that the arcs are interconnected, interacting with one another and the brain to produce coordinated movement.

    The Royal Society refused to publish the paper and several on the subject, denouncing the theory as absurd. Yet the acclaim Hall's work received on the Continent led to studies that demonstrated the validity of his ideas. 

    In 1831, Hall outlined five principles to govern animal experimentation.
    1.    An experiment should never be performed if the necessary information could be obtained by observations.
    2.    No experiment should be performed without a clearly defined and obtainable, objective.
    3.    Scientists should be well-informed about the work of their predecessors and peers in order to avoid unnecessary repetition of an experiment.
    4.    Justifiable experiments should be carried out with the least possible infliction of suffering (often through the use of lower, less sentient animals).
    Every experiment should be performed under circumstances that would provide the clearest possible results, thereby diminishing the need for repetition of experiments.


    •  Dissertatio inauguralis de febribus inordinatis.
       Edinburgh : Abernethy & Walker, 1812.

    •  On diagnosis. In Four Parts. London, 1917. German translation by A. F. Bloch.
        2 parts, Helmstädt, 1823; 2nd edition: The principles of diagnosis.
        New York, 1835:
        The present work resulted from an excellent course of lectures Hall
        conducted at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh just after his graduation.
        First published in 1817.
        3rd edition: Principles of the theory and practice of medicine. Including a third
        edition of the author’s work upon diagnosis.
        London : Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 1837. Boston, 1839.

    •  On the mimoses; or a descriptive, diagnostic and practical essay on the
        affections usually denominated dyspeptic, hypochondriac, bilious, nervous,
        chlorotic, hysteric, spasmodic, etc.
        London : Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Brown. 1918.

    •   Cases of a serious morbid affection : chiefly occurring after delivery,
        miscarriage, etc. from various causes of irritation and exhaustion : and of a
        similar affection, unconnected with the puerperal state. London, 1820.

    •   An essay of the symptoms and history of diseases, considered chiefly in their
        relation to diagnosis. London, 1822.

    •   A descriptive, diagnostic and practical essay on disorders of the digestive
        organs and general health etc. 1823.

    •  Commentaries on some of the more important of the diseases of females.
        London, 1827.

    •   Researches Principally Relative to the Morbid and Curative Effects of Loss of
        Blood. London, 1830. Philadelphia, 1830; 2nd edition, 1835.

    •   A Brief Account of a Particular Function of the Nervous System.
        Read at a meeting on November 27, 1832, and reported in part in
        Proceedings of the Zoological  Society of London, 1832; 2: 190-192.

    •   On the Reflex Function of the Medulla Oblongata and Medulla Spinalis.
        Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1833; 123: 635-665.

    •   Observations on blood-letting, etc. To which was added:  An essay on a
        hydrencephaloid affection in infants arising from exhaustion
        London, 1836; German tranlsation by H. Bressler, Berlin, 1837.

    •   Lectures on the nervous system and its diseases. London, 1836.

    •   Memoirs on the nervous system: I. The reflex function of the med. Oblongata
        and  med. Spinalis; II. The true spinal marrow and axcitomotory system of
        nerves.  London, 1837.
        German translations by E. Dieffenbach, Hamburg, 1839, and G. Kürschner,
        Marburg, 1840.

    •   On the Function of the Medulla Oblongata and Medulla Spinalis, and on the
        Excito- Motory System  of Nerves. 1837.

    •   On the Diseases and Derangements of the Nervous System, etc.
        London, 1841. German translation by J. Wallach, Leipzig, 1842. 
        Hall's studies of reflex action were much more widely acclaimed in Europa
        than in Great Britain and were never given any recognition by the
        Royal Society. Hall did, however, develop and apply his ideas on the reflex
        to medicine and  published several books concerning his research.
        He firmly established the concept of the reflex arc as a fundamental of
        neurophysiology and in this work applies to it to the diseases of the
        nervous system

    •   On the mutual relations between anatomy, physiology, pathology and
        therapeutics and the practice of medicine.
        London, 1842; German translation by E. Levin, Leipzig, 1843.

    •   New memoir of the nervous system. London, 1843.
        German translation by Johann Adolf Winter (1816-): Neue Untersuchungen
        über das Nervensystem. Leipzig, 1844.

    •   Practical observations and suggestions to medicine.
        London, 1845; German tranlsation by L. Posner, Leipzig, 1846.

    •   Essays on the theory of convulsive diseases : Essay I. On the convulsive
        affections of infants, and especially laryngismus ; essay II. On the convulsive
        diseases in adults, and especially epilepsy ; by Marshall Hall. London, 1848.

    •   On the neck as a medical region and on trachelismus etc. London, 1839.

    •   Synopsis of the Diastolic Nervous System: Or the System of the Spinal
        Marrow, and its Reflex Arcs; as the Nervous Agent in All the Functions of
        ingestion and Egestion in the Animal Economy.  London, 1850.

    •  Work on the Thames and the Sewerage of London. London, 1850.

    •  On the threatenings of apoplexy and paralysis, inorganic epilepsy, spinal
        syncope, hidden seizures, the resultant mania, etc.
        London : Longman, Brown, Green and Longman, 1951.
    •  Synopsis of cerebral and spinal seizures of inorganic origin and of paroxysmal
        form as a class: and of their pathology as involved in the structures and actions
        of the neck. London : J. Mallett, 1851.

    •  On the Two-Fold Slavery of the United States: With a Project of
        Self-Emancipation. London, 1854.

    •  Prone and poistural respiration in drowning and other forms of apnoea or
        suspended respiration. London, 1857.

    •  Essays on the Theory of Convulsive Diseases, etc.
        Edited by his son, Marshall hall. London, 1857.

    Biographical etc.

    Charlotte Hall:
    •  Memoirs of Marshall Hall . . . by his widow. London : Richard Bentley,1861.

    August Hirsch (1817-1894), publisher:
    •  Biographisches Lexikon der hervorragenden Ärzte aller Zeiten und Völker.
        2nd edition. Berlin, Urban & Schwarzenberg, 1929. 
        First published in 6 volumes 1884-1888. 3rd edition, München 1962.

    Charles Coulston Gillispie, editor in chief:
    •  Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York, 1970. 

    Edwin Clarke:
    •  Marshall Hall (1790–1857).
        In: The Founders of Neurology. Compiled and edited by Webb Haymaker
        and Francis Schiller.
        Springfield, Illinois, Charles C. Thomas. 2nd edition. 1970.

    Richard Toellner:
    •  Illustrierte Geschichte der Medizin. Andreas & Andreas Verlag,
        Salzburg, 1990. Original title: Histoire de la médicine, de la pharmacie, de
        l'art dentaire et de l'art vétérinaire. Paris     1978.

    •  Encyclopædica Britannica.

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