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Who was the man with the uneven gait? Mystery medical photos come to life with discovery of long-lost Penn archives

Tom Avril, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

PHILADELPHIA — He swayed slightly from side to side, his bare feet slapping the ground with each step. Identified only as Rogers, the lanky young man was one of nine neurological patients in a series of sepia-toned "electro-photographs," captured with novel stop-motion technology in Philadelphia in the summer of 1885.

The photographer was Eadweard Muybridge, better known for using his technique to record the movements of galloping horses. His famous images settled a vigorous debate of the Victorian era: whether the animals, at any point in their stride, lift all four hooves off the ground. (They do.)

Yet Rogers and the other medical patients in the photos have long been a mystery. Historians knew the images had allowed physicians to make precise measurements of irregular movements caused by disorders of the brain and spinal cord. But what caused the patients' symptoms? How were they treated? Who were they?

Geoffrey Noble, a neurologist who spent months combing through yellowing archives at the University of Pennsylvania, has now cracked the case. Working from limited details in an index that accompanied the photos, he matched them with comprehensive, handwritten medical records for each of the nine patients — revealing their diagnoses, the medicines they took, even where they lived and worked.

The clinical histories provide a rich illustration of an era when physicians were just starting to use technology to unlock the secrets of the human brain, said Noble, who did the research while he was a neurology resident at Penn's Perelman School of Medicine.

Scientists had begun using microscopes to study brains from autopsies, discovering the structure of neurons and how they were connected. And Muybridge's cameras offered a more precise way to characterize neurological disorders in those who were still living — foreshadowing the MRIs and other high-tech equipment that would come a century later.

 

The patients were photographed walking in front of a grid of white strings, hung at the back of a three-sided wooden studio near 36th and Pine Streets. The grid appeared in the photos like a big sheet of graph paper, allowing Muybridge's collaborator, Penn physician Francis X. Dercum, to measure the motion of their arms and legs.

Before then, neurologists had only their eyes and ears.

"These doctors had no tests at that time beyond their talking to the patients and examining their patients," said Noble, now a fellow in neuromuscular medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Noble did not set out to solve the riddle of the photos. His initial goal was more general: to study the early history of his field. Penn neurology professor Geoffrey Aguirre told Noble about the clinic records, which had been rediscovered after a recent renovation, and in November 2020, he started to read.

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