Brodie, Benjamin Collins

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Brodie, Benjamin Collins

(b. Winterslow, Wiltshire, England, 8 June 1783; d. Broome Park, Betchworth, Surrey, England, 21 October 1862)

physiology, surgery.

Benjamin Collins Brodie was the third son of Rev. Peter Brodie, the rector of the parish of Winterslow, and Sarah Collins, the daughter of a banker from Salisbury. He received his early education at home, being taught—along with his elder sister and brothers—by his father. At eighteen he went to London to study medicine and began attending the anatomy lectures of John Abernethy, pupil and “disciple” of John Hunter, at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. He entered the Windmill Street School of Anatomy in 1802 and in 1803 became surgical pupil of Everard Home, enrolling in St. George’s Hospital in June 1804. His father had died in March of that year, leaving the family in difficult circumstances. Fortunately, through his uncle, Thomas Denman, a distinguished obstetrician, Brodie became known to, and was helped by, many of the prominent medical men in London at that time. In May 1805, he was appointed house surgeon at St. George’s, and on 18 October of that year was admitted as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He became assistant surgeon at St. George’s in March 1808, and began lecturing on surgery at the Windmill Street School of Anatomy. He continued this course until 1830. In 1816 he married Anne Sellon; they had four children, one of whom, Benjamin, Jr., became a famous chemist.

Brodie’s scientific career has three aspects: he was a researcher, a surgeon and general practitioner, and a member of the medical establishment. He contributed six papers to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society between 1809 and 1814. These papers, whose significance is further discussed below, were not so much concerned with physiological theory as with factual experimental reporting. They were widely recognized, however, and their impact on the Royal Society gave Brodie considerable professional prominence. He was elected a member of the Royal Society, at the age of twenty-six, in February 1810, and in 1811 was awarded the Copley Medal, the youngest member ever to receive it. He was the Croonian Lecturer in 1810 and 1813, and in 1858 was elected president. He was the first surgeon to hold this post.

Around 1811, however, Brodie realized that he would, in effect, have to choose between research and teaching on the one hand, and surgery and private practice on the other. Thus, from that time on, his written publications consisted mainly of reports to the clinical journals. He had kept scrupulous case notes from the very beginning of his career, and sixteen volumes of these were given to St. George’s Hospital by his grandson. His book Diseases of the Joints was extremely influential and ran to five editions, the first appearing in 1818 and the last in 1850. It is based on an analysis of case histories, and Brodie clearly preferred to retain limbs rather than amputate them. In an age when women were cosseted indoors, he was a pioneer advocate of fresh air and exercise, and was able to demonstrate how many joint afflictions probably had hysterical origins.

Brodie was an excellent diagnostician and built up a flourishing practice as the leading surgical consultant. He became personal surgeon to King George IV in 1828, and president of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1844, having been an active and reforming member of its council for a number of years. He was knighted in 1834, and three years later, as he felt befitted his new station in life, bought a landed estate in Surrey.

In retrospect, Brodie’s six papers in the Philosophical Transactions seem to have had an impact out of all proportion to their theoretical importance, for the positive contributions were slight. In trying to assess why this was so, we find important clues to the prevailing state of physiological thought at the time. With the exception of the first paper, which was communicated to the Society by Everard Home, all the papers were communicated by, or first read to, the Society for Promoting Knowledge of Animal Chemistry, which had been founded ca. 1802 and of which Humphry Davy was a member. Physiology in England had received a great stimulus from the work of Joseph Black, Joseph Priestley, and Adair Crawford, and was also influenced—to a lesser extent—by the researches of Lavoisier and Laplace on respiration and animal heat. In particular Adair Crawford’s theory of animal heat production, based both on the chemical theory of respiration and on Black’s theory of specific heats, apparently tied up in a neat theoretical form one of the most perplexing problems of animal physiology. The importance of the new chemistry for physiology was recognized by the founding of the society mentioned above and by active research by many medical men.

Brodie’s papers made their impact almost solely because the empirical results they presented challenged the whole chemical theory of animal heat, with respiration (and, by implication, combustion) as the actual source of heat production. The results were indisputable. He destroyed the animal’s brain by pithing, decapitation, or poisoning, yet maintained respiration and heartbeat artificially—managing to do this for periods up to two and a half hours, getting the appropriate changes of color in the blood. If respiratory changes were the immediate cause of the heat in animals, then the temperature of the animals should be maintained. This did not occur. Moreover, if Brodie inactivated the higher cerebral centers by poisoning, then gradually allowed the animal to recover, as the “sensibility” was recovered, the animal also recovered the power of generating heat, until it could counteract the loss of heat due to the cold of the surrounding atmosphere. Brodie concluded, rightly, (1) that the presence of the brain was not directly necessary to the action of the heart, but only indirectly, by maintaining the “life” of the organs; (2) that if the brain is destroyed, the secretory functions and heat production are totally impaired; (3) that respiratory changes could not, of themselves, be responsible for animal heat production, because in his experimental situation, with the respiration artificially maintained, if the air inspired was cooler than the natural temperature of the animal, the effect of the artificial respiration was to diminish the heat of the animal, not increase it; (4) that the phenomena of animal heat production were very complicated indeed, and it was relevant to question whether, in view of the multifarious processes going on in the animal body, one was justified in attributing only one of them to animal heat production.

In later years Brodie was often represented as producing a “nervous” theory of animal heat (e.g., by Claude Bernard, in his La chaleur animale, 1876, p. 290). This is wrong: there is little trace of any theory in these papers. Brodie said, at the end of the 1812 paper, that he did not wish to advance some opinions, but simply to state facts. In certain aspects his empirical findings needed to be explained, and his doubts were genuine ones. Animal heat production and maintenance are controlled by nervous centers. It was recognition of this fact that led Bernard so many years later to quote Brodie. But it was the direct conflict between Brodie’s results and the contemporary chemical ideas that made Brodie’s papers the sensation they were.


The Works of Sir B. C. Brodie, collected by C. Hawkins, includes an autobiographical sketch in the first volume, pp. 1–116.

Biographies of Brodie are T. Holmes, Sir Benjamin Brodie (1898); and William R. LeFanu, “Sir Benjamin Brodie, F.R.S. (1783–1862),” in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 19 , no. 1 (1964), 42–52. See also G. J. Goodfield, The Growth of Scientific Physiology (1960), especially ch. 4, pp. 76–99.

G. J. Goodfield