American Society for Peripheral Nerve (ASPN)
Issue 17, Winter 2024
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Blast from the Past! Forgotten Fascicles
Aron D Wahrman, MD, MBA, MHCDS, FACS
(Occasional notes from an unapologetic bibliophile and indulged husband)

Aron D Wahrman, MD, MBA, MHCDS, FACS

That's SWAN !!, (Not Schwann...) Ah, fame...One of my favorite websites is www.whonamedit.com, an easily accessible compendium of medical eponyms and terms which also contain nice mini biographies of the discoverers and innovators from which we descend. In the pre-digital age there were also whole texts devoted to this topic, such as the great Hamilton Bailey's (1894-1961) Notable Names in Medicine and Surgery (1946). The website yields great questions to ask during surgery or clinic, and the intrepid medical student and resident is usually forewarned that I may quiz them on relevant history. Theodore Ambrose Hubert Schwann (1810-1882), who haunts our waking and sleeping hours as peripheral nerds, has no less than 10 entries on the website. One of the great anatomists, physiologists and natural philosophers, Schwann also discovered pepsin, and is considered the equal of Virchow in the world of histology. But to my current subject...

Recent acquisition of a French translation of an explanatory atlas, Neurology, or Anatomical Description of the Nerves of the Human Body (Paris 1838), yielded a more constrained inquiry into the author, Londoner Joseph Swan (1791-1874), a contemporary of Schwann. He is not graced with an entry in whonamedit; (the Swan-Ganz Catheter, by the way, was invented in 1970- no relation).

Our Swan was esteemed enough during his lifetime that his seminal works were translated into both French and German shortly after initial publication in England. He trained in surgery at St Thomas and Guy's Hospitals and was a highly regarded pupil of Sir Astley Cooper, noting his talents in dissection. In fact Cooper's Christmas gifts to Swan usually included an anatomic specimen (given the paucity of material) for Swan to dissect and preserve. Many now reside at the Royal College of Surgeons, and I attach a photograph of a head and neck dissection and its respective rendition, along with one of the upper extremity. The superb drawings are credited to an E. West (?) and the masterful engravings by William Finden (1787-1852). The translator, Eduoard Chassaignac (1804-1879), was a Parisian surgeon best known for introducing operative drainage tubes; he also translated Astley Cooper's works. I currently await the arrival of the German version of Dissertation On The Treatment of Morbid Local Affectations of Nerves (1820), as I could not find a copy of the English original. Of note, Swan was not merely a static anatomist; he published clinical work on the optic nerves and also laboratory research on in-vivo section of the lower extremity nerves, using rabbits as his model.

Another somewhat forgotten visionary, and such rich history traceable from one exquisite volume.





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