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On the Hereditary Connections between Certain Nervous Diseases

  • Francis E. Anstie

It is a great pleasure to me to have the opportunity of speaking to a number of my professional brethren on the subject announced for to-night's lecture—a subject whose vastness and far-reaching connections with the problems, not only of practical medicine, but also of physical and mental education for the young, are daily presented to my mind with increasing force by the facts that I observe in hospital and private practice. The inheritance of the neurotic temperament, with its ever shifting modifications and transformations of outward form, I need hardly tell you is not exactly a new discovery. Commenced, as far as scientific research goes, by Morel, in his treatise, “Des Dégénerescences Humaines,” the investigation of the hereditary neurosis has been since carried out by many observers, and has been specially illustrated by one of the most eminent alienists of the present day, Dr. Maudsley. It has now been sufficiently demonstrated in a general way, that there is handed down, in certain families, a tendency of the individual members to inherit from their parents either a particular nervous disease—for instance, insanity—from which they suffered, or else—and this quite as frequently—some other disease of the nervous system. Thus it often happens in these neurotic families, that an insane progenitor will endow a variable number of his descendants respectively with epilepsy, with neuralgia, with insanity, with invincible tendencies to drink, with brain softening, or with chorea; the more fortunate of his descendants escaping with only some more or less strongly marked irritability of nervous system, which may express itself chiefly in mental sensitiveness and impulsiveness, or in the existence of some slight local spasmodic affection, or in a general eccentricity of character which it is impossible to define. Or it may be that the vicious circle of nervous degeneration began at an earlier stage; for instance, the insane progenitor was himself the child of a drunkard, whose habitual intemperance had been the starting point—as there is reason to believe it often is the starting point—of a lowered nervous organisation of the family stock, which will show itself in the various ways already mentioned. These general facts are doubtless familiar to your minds, and you are also well aware that this sad inheritance is a curse that seems to fall with special weight upon families, many of whose members are of a mental calibre that would fit them to be the salt of the earth, possessing quickness of insight, original cast of thought, genius for mechanical invention, or, it may be, delicate artistic faculties. These are the men that really make the world march; it is they who give society its impulses to progress of all kinds; but, unhappily, it must be also said that they are too frequently the victims of their inherited temperament, and that their lives, even when they are not interrupted by any positive catastrophe, are too often overshadowed by the gloom of hypochondriasis, or poisoned by some unhappy intellectual or moral weakness, which may be known only to themselves, but is to themselves a perpetual misery, perhaps even a perpetual terror. Of course I am not here referring to the possessors of the highest kind of genius, that rare excellence which flowers only once or twice in a century of a nation's history; such natures are calm and strong, the typical embodiment of the mens sana in corpore sano, at its highest and best. Tour Shakespeare or your Goethe is no weakling. But, unhappily, it is not such as these that bear the heat and burden of modern progress, and among the men of second rank, upon whom that burden actually falls, a lamentable number are the victims of that inherited defect of nervous balance which is at the foundation of those associated hereditary neuroses, respecting which I ask permission to say a few words to you. And if we farther reflect on the fact that for one such partial, even if brilliant and useful success, as nature achieves in the persons of these neurotic men and women of talent, she probably makes at least two failures in the shape of their relatives who are nervous, but not talented, we cannot avoid the conviction that the subject of inherited neurosis is one of the most important that engages the attention either of the physician or of the student of social science.

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The substance of this paper was delivered as an address at a Conversazione of medical men of the West Riding, at the West Riding Ayslum, Wakefield.

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The British Journal of Psychiatry
  • ISSN: -
  • EISSN: 2514-9946
  • URL: /core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry
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On the Hereditary Connections between Certain Nervous Diseases

  • Francis E. Anstie
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