Pierre-Paul Broca

(1824 - 1880)

Compiled by Theresa Teter (May 2000)

Broca Biography
Time Line

Pierre-Paul Broca has been referred to as brilliant neurologist, surgeon and anthropologist, a child prodigy, and a man well ahead of his time. He was born in the township of Sainte-Foy-la-Grande in the Dordogne region of France in 1824. He entered medical school when he was seventeen years old and graduated by the age of twenty from Hotel Dieu in Paris. Broca became early a professor of surgical pathology at the University of Paris and a well known medical researcher in many areas. He held degrees in mathematics, literature, and physics. His early scientific work focused on the histology of cartilage and bone, the treatment of aneurisms, infant mortality, and cancer pathology. Also a wonderful brain anatomist, he made contributions to understanding the limbic system. Broca was also responsible for his discovery of the speech center, known today as Broca's area. He studied the brain of aphasic patients, which were people who were unable to talk. The most well known person he studied was the first patient at the Bicetre Hospital named " Tan" who had a neurosyphilitic lesion in one side of the brain which controlled speech.

Broca also was a pioneer in the field of physical anthropology. He founded the Anthropological Society of Paris, the Revue d'Anthropologie, and the School of Anthropology. Broca had a difficult time establishing the society of anthropology in France at this time. The Minister of Public Instruction and the Prefect of Police believed that discussing knowledge about human beings was against the state in some way. The Prefect of Police held Broca responsible for anything said in meetings that may be "against society, religion, or the government." (Sagan, 1979 ). A police spy in plain clothes was assigned to attend all meetings , and authorization for the society to meet could be taken away if the policeman was offended by anything he heard. Once, Broca related, that the spy wanted to take an unauthorized walk. " No, no my friend, " Broca responded. " You must not go for a walk:sit down and earn your pay." (Sagan, 1979 ). They gathered for the first time on May 19, 1859, the same year that The Origin of Species was published. Every branch of science was discussed at these meetings as well as many other topics. In 1876 the Roman Catholic political party organized a major campaign against the teaching of the subject at the Anthropological Institute of Paris, which was founded by Broca. He also contributed to the science of cranial anthropometry by creating new types of measuring devices and numerical indices. He is also known for describing for the first time trephined skulls from the Neolithic period in his studies of comparative anatomy of primates. As a person, his contemporaries desrcibed him as a " generous, compassionate, and kind, with unbreakable fortitude and honesty, venerated by all " ( Sabbatini, 2000).

He never made an enemy and never lost a friend. Although he was a Christian, he founded a society of free-thinkers in 1848 and supported Darwin's theory of natural selection. He was denounced by authorities as a materialist and a corruptor of the youth. Broca was concerned with health care for the poor and was a major leader in the Assistance Publique. During the night, at the risk of his life, he smuggled out of Paris in a horse-drawn cart seventy three million francs, stuffed into carpetbags and hidden under potatoes, the treasury of the Assistance Publique, which he believed he was saving from pillage ( Sagan, 1979 ).

He wrote hundreds of books and papers, fifty three of which were devoted to his studies on the brain. Despite being condemned as a free-thinker, Broca was elected a lifetime member of the French Senate. He was also a member of the French Academy and held many other degrees from other institutions in France and in other countries. Paul Broca died in Paris in 1880 from a brain aneurism.


Broca's contributions are still relevant today. On April 4, 1861, at a meeting of the Societe d' Anthropologie, Broca sat in the audience as Ernest Aubertin presented a paper discussing several case studies to argue the craniological site for cerebral localization to articulate language. Aubertin was the student and son-in-law of Jean Baptiste Bouillaud, a powerful figure in scientific circles. He was a student of Gall's and a founding member of Societe Phrenologique. In 1825 Bouillaud published a paper that implied evidence to support Gall's view that articulated language lies in the anterior lobes of the brain. For forty years, this cerebral localization hypothesis was accepted as the basis of language articulation. At this talk, Aubertin stated that he would give up his belief in cerebral localization if even one case of speech loss could be produced without a frontal lesion (Mind, Brain, and Adaptation, 2000 ).

Broca was intrigued and interested in this concept, so he decided to conduct an experiment and determine what he found. Within a week, M. Leborgne, famously referred to as " Tan ", died from gangrene on Broca's surgical ward. Tan was a speechless and hemiplegic patient. Broca performed a detailed post-mortem examination on Tan's brain, and found a superficial lesion in the left frontal lobe. To support his findings, a similar post-mortem examination done a few weeks later confirmed that there was a similar lesion in this person also. This section in the brain, referred to as the left inferior frontal gyrus of the brain was then determined to be the center for speech, today called Broca's area. This was one of the first discoveries of a separation of function between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. It was also one of the first indications that specific brain functions exist in particular locales in the brain, and that there is a connection between the anatomy of the brain and what the brain does ( Sagan, 1979 ). Broca next saw an eighty four year old man named LeLong who had suddenly lost his speech. He conducted a postmortem examination of his brain that showed a lesion in the left frontal lobe. The right side of his brain was perfectly normal in all of the patients he examined. In 1863 he described over twenty five aphasic patients who all had lesions in the left hemisphere. Broca went on to hypothesize that the left hemisphere develops more quickly than the right, and so it is more advanced. He also made important investigations of the limbic region, which is now known to involve human emotions.

Broca also took extensive measurements of the human body, particularly the head, to determine it's other functions. Broca believed that brain size is a good general reference to intelligence. This conclusion was based on two sets of data. The first was the results of the autopsies that he had taken in four Paris hospitals. He collected 292 brains of men and 140 brains of women. The average weight of the males brains' was 1,325 grams, and the average weight of the womens brains' was 1,144 grams with a difference of 181 grams. He also measured the brain capacities of prehistoric skulls. In those skulls he found a difference of 99.5 cubic centimeters, and with contemporary brains, there was a difference from 130 to 221 cubic centimeters ( Hothersall, 1995 ). He concluded from this data that the brains of primitive people were smaller than the brains of modern people, but that sex differences in brain volume were increasing over time. He assumed that mature adults are more intelligent than the elderly, and that men are more intelligent than women. The concept that men are more intelligent than women was a social acceptance of his time supported by Galton and many others from this period. This theory was later questioned and rejected by Alfred Binet. The brains that Broca studied became a part of Broca's Museum, which later merged with the Museum of Man in Paris. It's these efforts that still make Broca a leading pioneer in the study of the brain.

Time Line
1824- Broca was born in Sante- Foy-la-Grande in the Dordogne region of France.
1841- Entered medical school at just the age of seventeen.
1844- Graduated from medical school at Hotel Dieu in Paris at just the age of twenty.
1848- Founded the society of free-thinkers, which supported Darwin's theory of natural selection, although he was a Christian.
1853- Appointed surgeon to the hospital of Paris, France.
1856- Broca published Aneurysms and their Treatment.
1859- Founded the Anthropological Society of Paris and published The Ethnology of France.
1861- Showed that patients who couldn't speak had a neurosyphilitic lesion in one side of the brain, exactly where speech is controlled, which is today known as Broca's area.
1865- Broca published General Instructions on Anthropological Research.
1868- Became the Paris professor of surgical pathology and also became a member of the Legion of Honour.
1872- Founded the Anthropological Review .
1875- Broca published Instructions on Craniology and Craniometry.
1876- Founded the School of Anthropology in France. Near the end of his life, he became a lifetime member of the French Senate and the French Academy.
1880- Broca died from a brain aneurysm.

Hothersall, David. 1995. History of Psychology. Mcgraw-Hill:New York.
Sagan, Carl. 1979. Broca's Brain. Random House: New York.
Sabbatini, R.M.E.. A Brief Biography of Paul Pierre Broca: www.epub.org.br, February 2, 2000.
Mind, Brain, and Adaptation: www.serendip.brynmawr.edu, March 28, 2000.

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