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The First Neuroscientist, JLW Thudichum (1829-1901)

From 1865 to about 1910, studies of the chemistry of the brain were afflicted by the hypothesis that cerebral lipid matter consisted of a giant molecule from which all the simpler lipids were derived as breakdown products. In 1864, the German pharmacologist Oscar Liebrich presented a paper at a meeting in Giessen arguing that brain tissue was composed of a single giant molecule called “protagon.” Any simpler lipids that chemists were isolating, Liebrich argued, were simply breakdown products of this primary, high-molecular-weight compound. The protagon theory had quite an effect on Johann Ludwig Wilhelm Thudichum, a German-born physician and chemist who was working in London under contract to the medical officer of the Privy Council, John Simon. In an 1868 report to Simon, Thudichum wrote that he wanted to explore the theory further. But when Thudichum started doing his own experiments on brain chemistry, he quickly became disenchanted with Liebrich’s theory. From 1865 to 1871, Thudichum carefully detailed the chemical constitution of the brain. He showed that the elemental composition of protagon was variable and that no carbon-carbon bonds were broken under differential solvent extraction, which indicated that protagon was actually a mechanical mixture of several fatty-like substances, all of which had slightly different solubilities. Thudichum isolated, characterized, and often named various brain-derived compounds, including choline platinochloride, lecithin cadmium chloride, phrenosine, and kerasine. “Thudichum’s ability to employ this procedure to separate compounds with similar, but slightly different, solubility properties marks him out as a genius of the lipid laboratory,” says Theodore Sourkes, a biochemist at McGill University and the author of The Life and Work of J.L.W. Thudichum. For decades, however, the scientific community largely rejected Thudichum’s discoveries. Some accused him of “patent falsification”; others called him a “liar.” Only in 1910, almost a decade after his death, was the protagon theory finally laid to rest when three labs in London, Edinburgh, and New York confirmed that protagon was nothing more than a mixture of simpler lipids.  Thudichum performed chemical analyses on over a thousand brains, both human and animal, and has been called the first English biochemist and the world’s first pathological chemist. His career was characterized by voluminous work, although during his life, he failed to achieve the acclaim he deserved. His greatest work, A Treatise on the Chemical Constitution of the Brain, raised great criticism and garnered outright rejection by the most prominent scientists of the era. Over the years, Thudichum isolated, characterized, and named numerous brain-derived compounds such as cephalin, sphingomyelin, galactose, lactic acid, and sphingosine. He disproved the concept that brain matter was composed of a single giant molecule, protagon, that determined the various specialized properties of the brain. Time, awarded him victory. Ultimate vindication came in the 1930s when samples of his carefully extracted brain isolates were rediscovered, re-analyzed via modern techniques, and found to be both chemically pure and of the molecular composition that he had asserted.


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