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Newly Rediscovered Historical Medical Notebooks Solve Some Mysteries About Famous Muybridge Images

title plate
Title card for the photo series by Eadweard Muybridge in collaboration with Francis Dercum at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1880’s.

The department of Neurology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania celebrates its 150th Anniversary this year, and in looking back, one mystery has confounded historians for decades: who were the subjects of the famous Eadweard Muybridge images of human locomotion taken at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) in the late 1800s?

Muybridge, best known for his nineteenth-century photographs that used over a dozen cameras to capture a horse galloping, was recruited to the University of Pennsylvania in 1884 to carry out an ambitious project using emerging motion picture technology to understand human and animal locomotion.

As a part of this project, in 1885, Muybridge partnered with Francis Dercum, then chief of HUP’s Dispensary for Nervous Diseases, to study how neurological conditions impacted the movements of neurology patients. Dercum went on to use these images to publish the first rigorous analysis of the impact of neurological disorders on human locomotion, including walking, running, and jumping.

Over the years many historians, photographers, and physicians have attempted to track down the medical records for the subjects of Muybridge’s images, but remained at a loss. Lawrence C. McHenry, MD, a former professor of neurology at Wake Forest, and a noted historian of neurology, spent years searching for such records. “A clinical notebook was kept…I have desperately tried to locate it in Stanford and Philadelphia, but without avail,” he said in a presentation he gave at the American Academy of Neurology in 1985.

Until now, historians and physicians alike had limited knowledge about the scope of the Muybridge-Dercum project. Outside of the narrow information provided in Dercum’s publications, little was known about the identities and pathologies of the various subjects.

However, this year Geoffrey Noble, MD, PhD, a former Neurology resident in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, found the original clinical records for nine of Muybridge and Dercum’s photographic subjects within the recently rediscovered clinical notebooks from the HUP’s Dispensary for Nervous Diseases.

HV Rogers
Animal locomotion. Plate 560. Photographs of patient H.V. Rogers taken during the collaboration between Dercum and Muybridge in 1885.

The notebooks, which are the handwritten clinical records of the Dispensary’s physicians, include rich details about the patients photographed by Muybridge and Dercum, including the patient’s full name, age, race, sex, occupation, and residence, followed by a description of the history, physical exam findings, and physician’s treatment plan. The Dispensary physicians meticulously cross-referenced the records of returning patients, allowing the reader to follow the clinical course of individual patients, often for several years. Remarkably, six of the nine patient records found in the notebooks even had a version of “photographed by Mr. Muybridge” explicitly written in their clinical record.

The notebooks also illustrate how these subjects came to be photographed by Muybridge. The majority were white, working-class trade workers in the area who were already seeing Dercum through HUP’s Dispensary.

One of the previously unknown patients from the series whose treatment was detailed in the notebook was only named as “HB Rogers” and “HR” over the years. The newly discovered Dispensary notebooks identify this individual as H.V. Rogers, a 34-year-old clerk with a history of syphilis at age 22 who first visited the Dispensary in 1883 with headaches and indigestion. Rogers’ Dispensary records span 20 visits over six years and narrate his clinical decline through syphilis along with his physicians’ largely ineffective treatment efforts.

The notebooks reveal that he was initially diagnosed with “general nervousness secondary to overwork,” but in the following years, he returned to the Dispensary with additional difficulty buttoning his shirt and walking.

Rogers’ photographs were of particular importance, as they served as a foundation for Dercum’s analysis of the abnormal gait due to “locomotor ataxia,” or the loss of control of one’s bodily movements due to long-standing and untreated syphilis. Using Rogers’ gait as the archetype, Dercum identified the core features of the gait of locomotor ataxia, which in turn, helped diagnose and treat future patients presenting with similar symptoms.   

Dercum’s contributions to the Muybridge project were not well recognized during his life, perhaps because he worked as a junior faculty member in the shadow of a number of prominent Philadelphia physicians. Dercum remained sensitive to this lack of public recognition related to the Muybridge project despite going on to be a highly successful neurologist in his own right. The rediscovery of the Dispensary notebooks therefore helps give long overdue credit where credit was due.

“The Dispensary notebooks are further evidence of the central role Dercum played in this historic project, having referred the bulk of the clinical subjects to Muybridge via the Dispensary,” said Noble.

In addition to being excited to bridge the gap between these photographs and their subjects, Noble was thrilled at the opportunity to peek into a pivotal period in the history of neurology.

“These notebooks as a whole add new insights into the challenges of late nineteenth century neurologists, and open a fresh window through which to view the dawn of neurology in the United States,” he said. “They are, and will be a valuable resource for future neurological historians.”

Almost forty years ago, during one search for notebooks corresponding with Muybridge’s photos, historian Lawrence McHenry wrote to an archivist at the Eastman House, where much of Muybridge’s materials had collected over the years, inquiring after a possible clinic book related to the images. The archivist replied, “none of our material resembles anything like [a clinic book]. That would be a find!”

A find indeed!


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