Charles Bland Ratcliff (1822–1889): the Legacy of a Highly Published Failure

Rigor mortis and the epileptology of Charles Bland Radcliffe (1822–1889)

Charles Bland Radcliffe (1822–1889) was one of the physicians who made major contributions to the literature on epilepsy in the mid-19th century, when the modern understanding of the disorder was beginning to emerge, particularly in England. His experimental work was concerned with the electrical properties of frog muscle and nerve. Early in his career he related his experimental findings to the phenomenon of rigor mortis and concluded that, contrary to the general belief of the time, muscle contraction depended on the cessation of nerve input, and muscle relaxation on its presence. He adhered to this counter-intuitive interpretation throughout his life and, based on it, produced an epileptology that was very different from those of his contemporaries and successors. His interpretations were ultimately without any direct influence on the advance of knowledge.

…and if that isn’t enough:

Gordon Holmes, in his account of the history of Radcliffe’s hospital (and his own), the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases at Queen Square, London,1 saw fit to deliver the perhaps rather harsh judgment that Radcliffe had:

‘added little to its reputation or to medical knowledge’,

and

‘created no milestone in the progress of medicine, nor indeed added anything to nascent neurology.’

Nevertheless, Ratcliff had a string of letters and lectures published in The Lancet of his day.

 

Reference

Eadie MJ. Rigor mortis and the epileptology of Charles Bland Radcliffe (1822-1889). J Clin Neurosci. 2007 Mar;14(3):201-7.

Cb_ratcliff_figure

At times, he appeared to cheerfully make assumptions that enabled him to complete gaps in his chain of evidence. He seemed incapable of seeing defects in some parts of his grand corpus of ideas, defects that would call into question the validity of their whole, and he failed to modify his intellectual position as the mounting tide of evidence ran contrary to his concepts. As a result, if his thought is now remembered at all, he is recalled as a man who got many things quite wrong and who produced lines of thought that, despite all that he wrote, for the greater part led nowhere.

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