Aphasia History prior to 1800

Francisco Arceo described the head injury of a workman who was hit on the head by a stone, leaving the patient motionless and speech less for several days (Arcaeus, 1658). Arceo replaced most of the bone fragments, noting that the meninges were inflamed. Three days later the patient began to speak and then recovered completely.

Pierre Chanet (1649) described how a relative of his, following a wound to the head, forgot all kinds of words and letters of the alphabet, though he could still copy letters. He was taught to read and speak.

Olof Dalin (1708-1763), a Swedish observer, reported a 33 year old person who had an attack resulting in a right-sided paralysis and loss of speech. Two years he could say yes, and could recite familiar hymns. The therapist used sung speech (exaggerated intonation and rhythm) (Howard & Hatfield, p. 14; Benton & Joynt, 1960).

Johann August Philipp Gesner wrote a monograph entitled “Speech amnesia, that was the first major study of the disorder (Benton, 1965). The monograph contained 6 case reports describing a variety of symptoms associated with aphasia.

Samuel Johnson’s transitory episode of aphasia (Boswell, 1791, p. 247—1901 reprint from Critchley, 1970). (see p. 15 in Howard and Hatfield for direct quotes from Johnson).

Nicola Massa was a Paduan physician and specialist in philology. He described a case of his named Marcus Goro who lost his speech after a severe head injury. The injury involved a fracture of the skull and damage brain. Eight days after the injury the man was still speechless. After Massa took bone out of open wound, the patient began to speak (God be praised, I am cured) (Massa 1558, p. 90-91.)

Ambroise Pare (1509-1590) stopped cauterizing wounds with boining oil and water and began to use a salve made from the yolk of an egg, oil of roses, and turpentine. He treated two patients in this way, one who had lost his speech and a second who became deaf (aphasia?) (Howard & Hatfield, p. 11).

Peter Rommel (1643-1708) described a patient with aphasia (he called it aphonia) who had right-sided paralysis and had lost his ability to produce propositional speech following a stroke. He was able to say automatic speech, such as prayers. Rommel had her repeat the prayers after him but she couldn’t. She was able to read, but without perfect comprehension. She managed to lead a contented life (Benton & Joynt, 1960).

Johann Schenck (1530-1598) of Strasbourg, Germany was a physician and author of Medical observations on the human head (Observationes medicae de capite humano) (1585). He described 16 cases of speech and language disorders, most with open skull brain trauma. He observed that speech and language disorders did not necessarily co-occur with paralysis. He concluded that speech in these cases was a disorder of memory and not of the tongue:

I observed frequent cases after an apoplectic attack…there being certainly no paralysis of the tongue, but an inability to speak; the faculty of memory was abolished and no proffered words came to help (Schenckius, 1664, p. 180—trans in Howard and Hatfield, 1987, p. 10).

In 1673, a Prussian physician Johannes Schmidt (1624-1690) reported on a patient, Nicolaus Cambier, who had a stroke resulting in what would later be called motor aphasia and dyslexia (Benton & Joynt, 1960; Golkenrath, 1984,). This patient could successfully write to dictation, but could not read back what he had written. Initially, Cambier spoke only in "murmurings" and could not express the "thoughts of his mind." Schmidt reported word-substitution problems in the patient, who experienced great difficulty expressing his wishes to those around him. Soon after the initial stroke, Cambier began to have seizures so severe that he felt "miserably tortured." However, much to the surprise of his family and doctor, he gradually regained his health and was left with only one problem: He could not read any letters or words. Schmidt treated Cambier using bloodletting, enemas, and oils applied to the head, neck and nose. Cambier improved but still had trouble with reading.

Another of Schmidt’s patients, Wilhelm Richter, learned letters and then to read (Howard & Hatfield, p. 13).

Oberkonsistorialrat Spalding (1772) observed his own aphasia (Eliasberg 1950).

Johannes Jakob Wepfer (1620-1695) described 13 cases of language disorder in his work on head and brain injuries. He saw them as instances of memory loss (Luzzatti & Whitaker, 1996).

Reviews of descriptions of aphasia in the Rennaisance

Benton, A. & Joynt, R. (1960). Early descriptions of aphasia. Archives of Neurology, 3, 205-222.

Benton, A. & Joynt, R. (1963). Three pioneers in the study of aphasia (Johann Schmidt, Peter Rommel, Johann A. P. Gesner) (1738-1801). Journal of the History of Medical Allied Science, 18, 381-384.

Howard, D. & Hatfield, F. (1987). Aphasia therapy: Historical and contemporary issues. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Luzzatti, C. & Whitaker, H. (1996). Johannes Schenck and Johannes Jakob Wepfner: Clinical and anatomical observations on the prehistory of neurolinguistics and neuropsychology. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 9, 157-164.