Tuning Up - Spring 2009

Who Was Hall?

And just what was his connection to hedgehogs?

By Jeremy Bernstein | March 1, 2009

Periodically I shift through the detritus on my desk, which consists of countless levels of documents—papers, offprints, old e-mails, and Christmas cards—that must have meant something to me at one time but now seem utterly mysterious. A recent excavation uncovered a layer having to do with the French comic strip Asterix, another with the Proto-European number system, still another with the element plutonium. There was also a collection of Indian limericks, such as:

There was this girl from Hyderabad,
Such unbelievably good looks she had.
When she ventured out in Abids,
She was hounded by the kids
From Nampally, Begumpet and

I also came across an e-mail dated April 23, 1998, from a friend who teaches humanities at a nearby university. I had written to ask if I had gotten the following Hilaire Belloc quotation correct:

The husbands and the wives
Of this select society
Lead independent lives
Of considerable variety.

He responded with another bit of doggerel that I had not heard before:

Learned researchers at Oxford,
Such as Darwin, and Huxley, and Hall
Have conclusively proved that
the hedgehog
Cannot be buggered at all.

But learned researchers at Cambridge,
Have still more conclusively shown,
That this relative safety at Oxford,
Belongs to the hedgehog alone.

I was so pleased by this rediscovery that I passed it on to some friends, including satirist Tom Lehrer. Lehrer noted that he was familiar with several versions and suggested a Google search of “hedgehog, Darwin, Huxley.” Indeed, there are several versions, but I prefer the one above. I have no idea who wrote any of this, but Tom raised an interesting question. We all know who Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley were, but who was Hall? I am going to propose a conjecture. It is the noted 19th-century doctor and physiologist Marshall Hall.

He was born in 1790, in Basford, near Nottingham. His father, a cotton manufacturer who may have been the first to introduce chlorine bleach commercially, was a Methodist—a Dissenter—something that would give young Hall problems. Hall left school at age 14 and was apprenticed by his father to a chemist so he could become an apothecary. But he disliked the work and persuaded his father to allow him to study medicine in Edinburgh. He would have liked to attend Oxford or Cambridge, but as a Dissenter he was not eligible, which would seem to weaken his case as the Hall in the poem. But as it happens, neither Darwin nor Huxley had an Oxford connection either. Darwin also did his medical studies in Edinburgh, starting in 1825, and later attended Cambridge. Huxley left school at age 10 and was self-taught. After graduation, Hall ob­tained a prestigious job as house physician at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

He then did something that he continued to do for the rest of his career. He quit. Hall always had personality conflicts. In his entry on Hall in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Edwin Clarke notes that when he consulted J. F. Clarke’s Autobiographical Recollections of the Medical Profession, a clearly contemporary reader had written in the margin: “Hall was the most pompous little man I ever met.” After leaving Edinburgh, Hall went to the Continent, where he traveled for a year and developed a lasting relationship with French scientific institutions. When he returned to England, he set up a successful practice in Nottingham, and remained there until he moved to London in 1826.

By this time Hall was trying to combine the career of a practicing physician with that of a research scientist. He was hoping to do this in a university but he was never able to get a university appointment. Hall’s early work and much of his later work involved experimentation on live animals, which got him into trouble with the anti-vivisectionists. He bled dogs to death, decapitated frogs, and around 1830 experimented with hedgehogs. He was always interested in postmortem reflexes, and in the case of the hedgehogs, he observed that if you severed the upper cervical cord of a hibernating hedgehog, its heart continued to beat for almost 12 hours; while if you made the same experiment on an active hedgehog, the heart continued to beat for only two hours. These experiments, whatever their value, got him elected to the Royal Society in 1832. He immediately ran afoul of the Society’s very influential secretary, Peter Mark Roget, who had gotten elected for his invention of the logarithmic slide rule. Roget was also interested in language, and the thesaurus is named after him. What precipitated their conflict is not clear, but the result was that so long as Roget was alive, Hall never achieved prominence in the Society and none of the papers he submitted to its Philosophical Transactions was ever accepted.

While part of Hall’s problems had to do with his personality, a large part had to do with his program. To his credit, he sought to introduce scientific methods into medical practice. He studied the reflex actions transmitted in the spinal cord with the idea of curing people with spinal injuries or birth defects. Late in his career, he developed a method of resuscitating people who had apparently drowned, which is still in use. The conventional medical establishment, which, in Lewis Thomas’s wonderful phrase, did medicine by “trial and error—in that order,” was simply not very interested.

Much of his life Hall suffered from what was called “preacher’s throat”—a chronic hoarseness and irritation. It was a precancerous condition, and he died from it in 1857. Some people have referred to Hall as the father of modern neurology. And there he is with Darwin and Huxley in a bit of doggerel.

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