A patient who could only say the word ‘tan’ after suffering brain damage became one of the most important cases in the history of neuroscience. But the identity of the famously monosyllabic man has only just been revealed.
When examining the man’s brain (you can see it on the right), Broca found selective damage to the third convolution of the left frontal lobe and linked this with the fact that the person could understand speech but not produce it.
This type of speech problem after brain injury is now known as Broca’s aphasia but his innovation was not simply naming a new type of neurological problem.
Broca was one of the first people to think of the brain in terms of separate areas supporting specialised functions and studying patterns of difficulty after brain damage as a way of working this out – a science now known as cognitive neuropsychology.
The patient Broca described was nicknamed ‘Tan’ because this was the only syllable he could produce. The scientific report named his as Monsieur Leborgne but no further details existed.
Oddly, personal details were not even recorded in Broca’s unpublished medical notes for the patient.
Because of the mystery, people have speculated for years about the identity of Monsieur Leborgne with theories ranging from the idea that he was a French peasant to a philandering man struck down by syphilis.
But now, historian Cezary Domanski has tracked down the identity of Broca’s famous patient through detective work in record offices in France and published the results in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences.
According to the Broca’s report, the health problems of Louis Victor Leborgne became apparent during his youth, when he suffered the first fits of epilepsy. Although epileptic, Louis Victor Leborgne was a working person. He lived in Paris, in the third district. His profession is given as “formier” (a common description in the nineteenth century used for craftsmen who produced forms for shoemakers).
Leborgne worked until the age of 30 when the loss of speech occurred. It is not known if the damage to the left side of Leborgne’s brain had anything to do with traumas sustained during fits of epilepsy nor, as reported in some recent publications, does it appear to have been caused by syphilis, as that was not indicated in Broca’s reports. The immediate cause for his hospitalization was his problem with communicating.
Leborgne was admitted to the Bicêtre hospital two or three months after losing his ability to speak. Perhaps at first this might have been perceived as a temporary loss, but the defect proved incurable. Because Leborgne was unmarried, he could not be released to be cared for by close relatives; he therefore spent the rest of his life (21 years total) in the hospital.
Domanski’s article finishes on a poignant note, highlighting that Leborgne became famous through his disease and death and his life history was seemingly thought irrelevant even when he was alive.
“It is time” says Domanski, “for Louis Victor Leborgne to regain his identity”.