In 1861, the French physician Pierre Paul Broca, hoping to resolve a debate about the nature of the brain, conducted an autopsy on the body of a man who had lost the ability to speak at age 30 and spent the remaining 21 years of his life in a psychiatric hospital. The debate pitted some medical authorities, who believed that the brain was a homogeneous organ, against others, including Broca, who argued it was organized into distinct areas. In fact, Broca thought language was controlled by a particular section of the left frontal lobe—and he proved it when he discovered damaged tissue in precisely that part of the brain of the patient, who would be immortalized in the medical literature as “Monsieur Leborgne.” It was “a big milestone in the history of brain science and neuroscience,” says Broca biographer Leonard LaPointe.
But it seemed odd to Cezary W. Domanski, a psychologist and science historian at Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Poland, that the medical textbooks had nothing more to say about Leborgne, one of the profession’s most famous patients. “The case of a man who spent nearly half of his life in a hospital, unable to communicate with others, made a big impression on me,” Domanski recalls. “I wanted to learn something more about that man.”
It was known that Leborgne had also been called “Tan,” the only word he uttered consistently, and that medical historians had assumed he was a lower-class illiterate who had suffered from syphilis.
Domanski spent several weeks searching through online French historical records, where he finally found a copy of Leborgne’s death certificate. It included his full name—Louis Victor Leborgne—and place of birth, Moret, which is currently the town of Moret-sur-Loing. Domanski speculates Leborgne’s utterance “tan” was the remnant of a childhood memory: Several tanneries (moulin à tan) operated where he grew up.
Further research revealed Leborgne was born on July 21, 1809. He had five siblings and his father was an elementary school teacher. Domanski surmises that, contrary to popular belief, Leborgne was at least partially educated; a sister and nephew signed their own names on marriage certificates, indicating the family was literate.
Domanski, who published his findings earlier this year in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, sees the restoration of Leborgne’s identity as a way to further humanize medicine, even if the case is over 150 years old. “A patient is not an object,” he says. “Every person deserves respect.”