Thursday 24 June 2010

The Neurosciences and an Invisible Paris tale

Last week, a series of posts I wrote on this blog about the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot were published in the brochure which accompanied the annual meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences. During this event I was able to meet organisers and visit the Charcot library at the Salpetrière hospital.

The library, although today housed in a 1960s concrete block, is based around the personal collection that Charcot had built up in his own home, the Hôtel de Varengeville (today the Maison de l’Amérique Latine) during his lifetime. After his death, his son, the explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot, donated the collection, bookshelves and all, to the Salpetrière hospital.

The collection includes the books and periodicals that Charcot studied (in four languages; French, English, German and Italian) as well as his own writings and sketches. It has also been added to over time with more recent texts in the fields Charcot had worked in.

Véronique Leroux-Hugon, who showed visitors around, has worked in this library for several decades, carefully curating the works of the Charcot collection and doing her best to perpetuate the reputation of neurologist’s body of work. Soon she will retire, happily now as she has become tired of fighting losing battles. The collection will soon be transferred to another site on the hospital, and she is convinced that large parts of it will be forever hidden from view.

Today it is a working library” she points out, “although few doctors come here and consult the texts now”. Students sit and study at the tables in the room because they know they will be assured of silence and calm, and followers of Charcot regularly visit what has become almost an unofficial museum to the man, but the science in the collection has become a little dusty for the powers that be.

After the transfer to a shiny new building on the hospital site which is due to be completed later this year, the more prestigious elements of the collection will be put on display, with the rest being stored away in boxes. What has survived as a unique ensemble for over one hundred years, including a first transfer from Charcot’s original offices to today’s current functional location, will now be broken up.

This hospital is a fascinating place” explains Leroux-Hugon, “but a very complex one too. More and more of the history of the place is disappearing because the administrators want to concentrate purely on medicine”. It seems like a reasonable objective for a hospital, but history also brings responsibilities. Leroux-Hugon is perhaps one of the last remaining bastions who can remind them of this fact. When she leaves and the library is torn down, we can only hope that the power of words will live on.

The future of the collection and the place in which it will be housed has apparently not yet been finalised, but the administrators would do well to consider two points before making their decisions. Firstly, when donating the collection, Jean-Baptiste Charcot stipulated one condition - "que cette bibliothèque soit et reste toujours attachée à la Clinique des maladies du système nerveux dont elle deviendra une annexe" (that this library must be - and remain - attached to the nerve system illnesses clinic, of which it will become an annex). Secondly, they should read the speech Charcot made on the day of the unveiling of the library in 1907:

"Lorsque...j'ai consideré que mon devoir exigeait que je me separe de cette bibliothèque pour permettre à tous les chercheurs, à tous les savants, de venir puiser dans ses richesses, j'ai pensé que sa seule place était ici, et que l'âme de mon père, qui hante ces vieux murs, serait satisfaite de voir ainsi compléter son oeuvre. Peut être, veillant sur le chercheur assidu, viendra-t-il parfois, invisible, indiquer le volume, tourner la page, montrer le passage qui éclairera le problème ardu".

(When...I considered it my duty to give up this library, and enable all researchers, all scholars, to be able to come and dip into its riches, I knew that its rightful place was here, and that the soul of my father, who haunts these old walls, would be pleased to see his work completed. Perhaps, overlooking a diligent researcher, he will come sometimes, invisible, and indicate a volume, turn a page, or show a passage that will enlighten a taxing problem).


e said...

Lovely piece, Adam. It is a shame the library is to be torn down...

Karin B (Looking for Ballast) said...

"What has survived as a unique ensemble for over one hundred years, including a first transfer from Charcot’s original offices to today’s current functional location, will now be broken up."

This is very sad to read. Unfortunate. Maybe someone involved with the powers-that-be will re-think these actions and find a place where the collection can remain intact and provide the kind of haven that it seems the library has provided since the 1960s.

I know that often progress comes at the sacrifice of what is past, but given the wishes of the benefactor, it seems that the original requests could be honored better than what is planned. I agree with your assessment that there is a responsibility that remains with the hospital to preserve its roots and history. I hope they will make more balanced choices. Perhaps another benefactor might step in and remedy this situation.

Thérèse said...

"The power or words": an optimistic thought.

PeterParis said...

Well... when will the texts be "googled"?
The library is just beautiful!

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