How to Sell a Dissertation, Or: The Hand as a Proxy for the Brain

Guest post by Tabea Cornel, recipient of the 2017 Mary Louise Nickerson Award in Neuro History. Tabea Cornel is a PhD student in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation focuses on handedness research within the brain and mind sciences in Europe and North America, particularly theories of the origin, prevalence, and pathological nature of left-handedness.

When asked about my dissertation topic as an early ABD (“all but dissertation”), I used to tell people that I work on the history of handedness research. A very common response was: “Handedness in what sense? Does it have something to do with molecules?” I usually explained that I’m researching manual preference, and that my project has nothing to do with chirality or any other fancy physical phenomenon.

After half a year of explaining what I mean by “handedness,” I came up with a more efficient strategy for answering the dissertation question. I started waving my hands in the air whenever I said “handedness.” This was somewhat effective. My conversation partners usually understood that I write a history of left- and right-handedness, but this also made them give me a look that said: “Oh my, what a boring thing to do.”

Having learned my lesson from these encounters, I now introduce the underlying argument of my research before I mention the actual topic. The extended version of my elevator pitch goes somewhat like this: My project investigates scientific classifications of human subpopulations. I particularly attend to the ways in which traditions, stereotypes, and social inequities inform research in the human sciences and the extent to which these conceptions produce “scientific” explanations for alleged human hierarchies.

Enter handedness: The lens through which I look at the phenomenon of hierarchical classifications is manual preference. This may seem an unexpected route to take, but research on handedness is a very fruitful avenue for tracing continuities within the human sciences in the past 150 years. More precisely, the project paints a picture of the longue durée of the mind, brain, and neuro-sciences. Since French anatomist and anthropologist P. Paul Broca (1824–1880) declared in 1865 that humans are right-handed because they are left-brained, researchers have used handedness as a proxy for the brain, mind, and character. On both sides of the Atlantic, scientists have linked anatomical, genetic, or hormonal explanations of the causes of handedness with age-old racist, sexist, and able-ist ideas of what makes one group of humans different from another one.

This framing gets many of my conversation partners (almost) as excited about my work as I am.

Several items at the Osler Library illustrate the distinct status of the hand even before 1865, when Broca advanced his theories about the connection between brain asymmetry and manual laterality. Scottish anatomist and neurologist Charles Bell’s (1774–1842) The Hand, for instance, provided a vivid portrait of the hand as an exclusively human organ. He wrote:

We ought to define the hand as belonging exclusively to man—corresponding in sensibility and motion with that ingenuity which converts the being who is the weakest in natural defence [sic], to the ruler over animate and inanimate nature.[1]

Bell was very clear about this instance of human exceptionality in the quoted edition from 1833. But for the 1865 edition, the publisher added a drawing on the page following this paragraph. It shows a monkey that is reaching for something outside of the image, probably a branch of a tree or a piece of fruit. Only in case it had not become entirely clear in the text, this drawing empowered the reader to visually grasp the difference between their own hand and the allegedly primitive paws of an ape.[2]

After having explained the system of bones, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels in intricate detail, Bell concluded that the hand, or the human body more generally, could not have developed accidentally. Bell clearly believed in a hierarchical divine creation, a “Great Chain of Being,” with white male humans all the way at the top.[3]

Bell’s faith in a purposeful design of the human species also underlay his argument that the superiority of the human hand derived not from its anatomical condition, but from its close association with the human intellect:

In discussing this subject of the progressive improvement of organized beings, it is affirmed that the last created of all, man, is not superior in organization to the others, and that if deprived of intellectual power he is inferior to the brutes. … Man is superior in organization to the brutes,—superior in strength—in that constitutional property which enables him to fulfil his destinies by extending his race in every climate, and living on every variety of nutriment. Gather together the most powerful brutes, from the artic [sic] circle or torrid zone, to some central point—they will die, diseases will be generated, and will destroy them. With respect to the superiority of man being in his mind, and not merely in the provisions of his body, it is no doubt true;—but as we proceed, we shall find how the Hand supplies all instruments, and by its correspondence with the intellect gives him universal dominion.[4]

A further drawing was added to the 1865 edition in the interest of enforcing said hierarchies amongst different human groups even more. The reader looks at a scantily dressed dark-skinned male with a dagger hanging from his neck. This person is crawling on the floor under a white male’s bed and reaches for valuables on the night stand.[5]

The fact that the aforementioned monkey and the apparent thief reach for something with their left hands implicitly reiterates the inferiority of these two creatures. Other illustrations in the 1865 volume present right-handed actions, no matter if they display the function of bones and muscles or more complete (parts of) light-skinned humans.

Because of the presumed close association between the hand and the mind, the moral valency of actions of the hand implied a hierarchy of individual beings and groups of beings. The idea of the “Great Chain of Being” is mirrored in the grasping of the left monkey paw, the attempted theft of the black left hand, and all other ostensibly decent and accomplished uses of white right hands shown in further illustrations in the volume.

The English physiologist and anatomist George M. Humphry (1820–1896) echoed the close association between the mind and the hand in his treatise on The Human Foot and the Human Hand. He insisted that “The Hand [Is] the Organ of the Will” and that “the hand becomes an organ of expression and an index of character” because the mind works through the hand.[6]

Other sources at the Osler Library bear witness of much more heterodox approaches to the mind as a window into human character. Take the 78-page monograph The Hand Phrenologically Considered. The anonymous author provided a manual for how to perform a phrenological reading of a person’s hands to determine their character, abilities, and experiences. (The traditional phrenological approach would have been to palpate an individual’s skull.)

In line with my argument that practitioners used the hand to advance theories about the character, mind, and brain of human subpopulations, the author of The Hand Phrenologically Considered suggested that the “Form of Extremities Differs in Individuals of the Same Species” by age, sex, race, class, and ethnicity.[7]

In a similar vein, the Carter Medicine Company employed the promise of phrenological assessments of the hand in the interest of financial gain. In a little pamphlet, Mysteries of Our Hands and Faces, Carter Medicine provided instructions for the phrenological reading of hands as well as parts of the face (forehead, eyes, nose, etc.). The Company offered these instructions in conjunction with directions for how to use their liver pills most effectively.

Even more eclectic is a little hand-shaped advertisement for the Worcester Salt Company. Under the slogan “Your fortune is in your own hands,” the pamphlet offered a short introduction into palmistry to all potential buyers of Worcester Salt.[8] The advertisement makes intelligible the wide-spread fascination for heterodox sciences that connected the mind and the hand in the late 19th century, decades after Broca had advanced his anatomical theory.

Other examples of holdings at the Osler Library that put the hand into the focus of human classification practices abound. The French poet Joseph L.J. Leclercq (1865–1901), for instance, published a historically-oriented work about palmistry. Concretely, he provided examples for and distinguished between “[c]hirologie, chirographie[,] chirognonomie,” “chiroscopie, chirosophie, palmisophie, [and] chiropsie.”[9] Who knew that there were so many different approaches to turning the hand into a proxy for the mind?

Last but not least, I want to mention Hungarian writer Pál Tábori’s (1908–1974) much more recent monograph The Book of the Hand. Tábori, who had a deep interest in psychical phenomena, connected in his work palmistry with idioms and superstitions about the hand, as well as with considerations of manual gestures, the sense of touch, dactyloscopy (the reading of fingerprints), handwriting and graphology, and the condition of having lost a hand and/or using an artificial hand.[10]

Tábori’s work intrigues by its sheer breadth of hand-related phenomena, some of which we would consider apt research topics for establishment science, and others that are clearly heterodox. As I learned during my four weeks at the Osler Library, the desire to access the hidden brain through the manifest hand brought these approaches together.

[1] Charles Bell, The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments, as Evincing Design, Bridgewater Treatises on the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation 4 (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1833), 26.

[2] Charles Bell, The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments, as Evincing Design, 7th ed., Bridgewater Treatises on the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation 4 (London: Bell & Daldy, 1865), 13.

[3] Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2009).

[4] Bell, The Hand, 39–40.

[5] Bell, The Hand, 29.

[6] George Murray Humphry, The Human Foot and the Human Hand (Cambridge: Macmillan and Co., 1861), 156–61.

[7] N.N., The Hand Phrenologically Considered: Being a Glimpse at the Relation of the Mind with the Organisation of the Body (London: Chapman and Hall, 1848), 51–57.

[8] Worcester Salt Company, “How to Read the Lines of the Hand” (New York, 1894).

[9] Joseph Louis Julien Leclercq, Le caractère et la main: Histoire et documents (Paris: F. Juven, [1900]), 1–2.

[10] Pál Tábori, The Book of the Hand: A Compendium of Fact and Legend Since the Dawn of History (Philadelphia: Chilton Company, 1962).

Illustrated Talk: A History of Neuro-Oncology & Canadian Savoir Faire

You’re invited! Please join us Thursday March 30th, 4:30pm for an illustrated talk by Dr. Rolando Del Maestro, MD, PhD, William Feindel Emeritus Professor in Neuro-Oncology, Director of McGill Neurosurgical Simulation Research and Training Centre.

This talk encourages discussion surrounding ideas and individuals that have shaped the world of neuro-oncology, while placing emphasis on Canadian neuro-oncology research. Guests are encouraged to prepare a ‘Canadian Neuro-Oncology Minute’ that highlights an individual’s contributions to historical and/or current advancements in Canada. The most compelling of these ‘verbal minutes’ will receive an autographed copy of Dr. Rolando Del Maestro’s book A History of Neuro-Oncology (2008).

Who would you choose to highlight for a ‘Canadian Neuro-Oncology Minute’?

Gord Downie performing live at Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ontario in 2001. Photo by Ryan Merkley. Retrieved from WikiMedia Commons.


Gord Downie, lead singer of The Tragically Hip.

The beloved singer, songwriter, poet, and all-round cultural Canadian icon was recently diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. His public diagnosis and tremendous courage has helped raise awareness about neuro-health in Canada.



For information regarding the work and research happening at the McGill University Neurosurgical Simulation Research Center, follow this link.

Wilder Penfield Digital Collection

penfield_public_screenWe are pleased to announce this week that the Wilder Penfield Digital Collection is now available to access online! The new website includes Wilder Graves Penfield (1891-1976) biographical information, as well as meters and meters worth of digitized archival images, letters, and other materials from the Osler Library’s extensive Penfield fonds.

Students and researchers are encouraged to explore this website for information ranging from Penfield’s childhood, education and medical training, to his widely influential research. As founder and head of the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) from 1933-1960, Penfield was Canada’s foremost neurosurgeon at the time and his career continues to influence generations of neurologists around the world.

The digitization of this collection was made possible thanks to a generous grant from the R. Howard Webster Foundation, obtained by the late Dr. William Feindel (1918-2014).

Announcing the recipients of the Dimitrije Pivnicki Award

Dr. Dimitrije Pivnicki

Photo of Dr. Pivnicki courtesy of Dr. Beverlea Tallant

The Osler Library is very pleased to announce that we have selected two researchers to recieve the Dimitrije Pivnicki Award in Neuro History and History of Psychiatry to support their research with our collections. This year’s recipients are Shana Cooperstein and Dr. Boleslav Lichterman.

Shana Cooperstein is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. Her doctoral research is on the nature of artistic pedagogy in France in the 19th century. In particular, she investigates methods of artistic training at a crucial historical moment in which the applications of drawing education underwent reform and greatly expanded to domains outside of the art world through their appeal to cognitive development. Her work at the Osler Library will provide the medical context for analyzing the neuroscientific assumptions underlying artistic curricula from the period.

Dr. Boleslav Lichterman is a historian of medical history at the IM Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University in Russia. His research at the Osler Library will aim to provide an overview of logistics and different strategies of management of head injuries during World War I and the subsequent impact on the development of neurosurgery as a specialty field. In particular, he will work with the archival collection of Edward Archibald (1872-1945), known as “Canada’s first neurosurgeon.”

Congratulations to our 2015-2016 recipients! The award was established in 2012 by the family and friends of Dr. Dimitrije Pivnicki (1918-2007), who practiced and taught psychiatry at the Allen Memorial Institute of McGill University from 1956 to 1996. With degrees in law and medicine, he had a wide and eclectic interest in classic and modern languages and literature, and a keen appreciation of the history of neuropsychiatry. To find out more about the award, please visit our website.


Announcing the Mary Louise Nickerson Fellowship recipients

Mary Louise NickersonThe Osler Library congratulates Eric Oosenbrug and Dr. Patricia Rosselet, the recipients of the Mary Louise Nickerson Fellowship in Neuro History for 2015-2016.

Dr. Patricia Rosselet is an MD/PhD in Life Sciences at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois and the Institut Universitaire d’Histoire de la Médecine et de la Santé Publique at the Université de Lausanne in Switzerland. Her dissertation is entitled, “Diagnosis by Imaging: the Case of Textbooks of Diseases of the Nervous System (1850-1920).” A specialist in the history of medical imagery and 19th-20th century history of medicine and neuroscience, she will be working on a project at the Osler Library involving the study of 20th century neurological textbooks to trace a paradigmatic shift in the images accompanying neuroscientific texts, from anatomical plates and patient photographs to computerized images of the brain.

Eric Oosenbrug is a PhD candidate in the History and Theory of Psychology program in the Department of Psychology at York University in Toronto. His dissertation research focuses on the development of pain research during the mid-20th century in Montreal. His work at the Osler Library will center around the role of McGill and the Montreal Neurological Institute in the development of pain research and theory in the 1960s, and particularly in the work of Wilder Penfield, Joseph Stratford, Donald O. Hebb, and Ronald Melzack.

Congratulations to our 2015-2016 recipients! For more information about the Nickerson Fellowship, please visit our website. The Mary Louise Nickerson Fellowship was established in 2011 by Granville H. Nickerson, MDCM, in honour and in memory of his wife, who was an inspiration to many of Dr. Nickerson’s classmates of McGill Medicine Class of 1945, an acknowledged scholar, and an enthusiastic promoter of the arts.


Pivnicki Award

Applications are currently being accepted for this research travel grant to the Osler Library

The Dr. Dimitrije Pivnicki Award in Neuro-History is offered by the Osler Library and the Montreal Neurological Institute and Library to support research in the field of neuropsychiatry and neuro-history. The award was established in 2012 by the family and friends of Dr. Pivnicki (1918-2007), who practiced and taught psychiatry at the Allen Memorial Institute of McGill University from 1956 to 1996. With degrees in law and medicine, he had a wide and eclectic interest in classic and modern languages and literature, and a keen appreciation of the history of neuropsychiatry, an area of scholarship that will be advanced by this award.
The award supports a student or scholar wishing to carry out research utilizing the rich archival and monographic holdings at McGill University, such as the Penfield Archive in the Osler Library, and other resources available at the Osler Library, the Montreal Neurological Institute and the McGill University Archives. The Osler Library’s collections are listed in the McGill Library Catalogue and the Osler Library Archives Collection website.

Terms: The value varies depending on the project, to a maximum of approximately $4,000. The recipient is required to carry out research in Montreal during the 2014-15 fiscal year (May 2014-April 2015). The award may be renewable.

Requirements: We invite applications from a variety of individuals, including graduate students, scholars and professionals. Recipients are required to submit a report of their work suitable for publication in the Osler Library Newsletter and may be requested to give a brief presentation at the university.

Deadline is February 1, 2014. Information on how to apply is found on our website.