Owner of Broca’s area identified

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.

Broca’s area was one of the first brain areas identified with a specific function after 19th Century neurologist Paul Broca autopsied a man who had lost the ability to speak.

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Oddly, personal details were not even recorded in Broca’s unpublished medical notes for the patient.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”.

Link to locked article on the identity of Broca’s patient (via @Neuro_Skeptic)

11 thoughts on “Owner of Broca’s area identified”

  1. Technically, Leborgne could say more than just the word “tan”. Apparently he could curse quite well (a feature not uncommon in expressive aphasia, interestingly). But I guess referring to him as patient “Merde” in the literature was seen as uncouth.

    1. I thought so also but apparently this is a common confusion with another of Broca’s cases.

      From Domanski’s article:

      He was better known there by the nickname of “Tan” as it was the sole syllable he was able to articulate, often doubling it (as in “tan tan”) and elaborating with gestures. Some authors wrongly say that during emotional unreset Leborgne uttered the sentence “sacré nom de Dieu,” but in reality this applied to another case, a patient nicknamed “Chev” who was described by Broca in another article (Broca, 1866).

      1. From Broca’s Remarks on the Seat of the Faculty of Articulated Language,
        Following an Observation of Aphemia (Loss of Speech)
        ( Bulletin de la Société Anatomique, 6, 330-357):

        He came and went in the hospice where he was known under the name of Tan. He understood all that was said to him; he even had very fine hearing; but, regardless of the question addressed to him, he always responded: tan, tan, in conjunction with greatly varied gestures by means of which he succeeded in expressing most of his ideas. When his interlocutors did not comprehend his mime, he would easily become enraged, and then add to his [p. 344] vocabulary a great swearword, one only, and precisely the same that I indicated above, in speaking of a patient observed by Mr. Auburtin. Tan was regarded as being egotistical, vindictive, bad, and his comrades, who detested him, accused him even of being a thief. These faults could have been due in large part to the cerebral lesion; however, they were not pronounced enough to appear pathological, and, though this patient was at Bicêtre, one never thought of moving him to the division for the insane. He was considered, on the contrary, as a man perfectly responsible for his acts.

      2. I got this reply from Cezary Domanski. This is posted here with his permission:

        Thank you for taking interest in my paper.

        Yes, according to the Broca’s report (Bull. Soc. Anat., 1861, page 344) Leborgne did swear. It was some vulgar swearword (“un gros juron”), most likely monosyllabic, that Broca did not dare to quote.

        Interestingly, in D.-A.-F. Bernard’s book “De l’aphasie et de ses diverses formes” (Paris 1885, page 176) there’s a reprinted Broca’s report on Leborgne. In that report there are added words (!!!), that this swearword was “Sacre nom de Dieu”. However, this reprint appeared five years after Broca’s death.

    2. {chuckles} True.

      Btw ..will this be the same region which is mainly affected in persons with Tourette’s Syndrome, say?

      Also, I’ve, at many times pondered for brief periods over what obscenities could verbally be produced from a person with Tourette’s should they only comprehend language[s] with extremely limited curses, such as in the Japanese medium ..I can only think of “baka = stupidity/idiocy” and “suko = expression similar to ‘damnit'” which are generally used.

      Any rare occurrance of obscenities in the Japanese language would probably display, in a string of words, a commendable grammar and its formative structure.

      Thus, being reduced to only a couple or three swear words in the commonly used Japanese language – how does Tourette’s affect the Japanese native speaker? Or speakers of other languages with little to almost a non-existant vocab of curses?

    1. Also, it seems as if the person wth aphasia comprehends well what is spoken by another person so permit me to assume in terms of memory [of the linguistic structure – vocab and its proper grammatical usage/transliteral contexts], retention itself is not affected in a person with aphasia [because they can still “get” another person/engage in comprehension].

      So am I correct that the core of the very problem actually lies in RETRIEVAL [memory – linguistic region]; and due to the damage to the tramission from retrieval to expression, the symptom then manifests itself as Broca’s Aphasia?

  2. When I was a very young child, probably less than ten years old, my family went on a trip with my father’s boss’ family. The boss’ MIL had suffered a stroke, and apparently thereafter suffered from Broca’s aphasia–she could still understand every word you spoke to her (her doctors were astonished her stroke hadn’t damaged her mental faculties), without your having to “dumb down” your conversation; she just couldn’t respond verbally (thinking about it now, I don’t remember her being able to write down responses either). So as long as you could ask her simple yes/no questions, or have her, for example, point to an item on a menu to indicate what she wanted (this was well before the days of personal computers and other assistive devices), she could communicate just fine.

  3. This discussion on Leborgne may be getting old now, but Dr Doamanski has done us all a great service by researching into Leborgne the person beyond the ‘case’. On whether Leborgne had one (tan, tan) or two (at least) automatisms (Sacre Nom De Dieu = sacred name of God) see Chris Code (2013): Did Leborgne have one or two speech automatisms?, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences: Basic and Clinical Perspectives, 22:3, 319-320.

    It’s unusual for people with speech automatism (recurring utterances) to mix lexical (Sacre Nom…) and nonlexical (tan, tan, which is meaningless in French) automatism. So its’ particularly interesting that Broca’s first case, and the man. Leborgne, who became the basis for modern aphasiology should prsent with a mix.

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