Discovering trepanation: The contribution of Paul Broca

William T. Clower, Stanley Finger, James T. Goodrich, Edward R. Laws, Bernard George

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

60 Scopus citations


PAUL BROCA WAS an icon of neuroscience and neurosurgery who also happened to be intrigued by trepanned skulls. His anthropological work established that, thousands of years ago, individuals not only trepanned skulls but also successfully performed these operations on living persons. After first commenting on a pre-Columbian Peruvian skull in 1867 (the first case of trepanning on a living person widely recognized as such), he turned to even older trepanned skulls found on French soil. In the 1870s, he theorized that the procedure originated as a means to treat convulsions in infants. As he saw it, Neolithic man attributed such convulsions to evil spirits, for which trepanation provided a ready means of escape. Because simple infantile convulsions resolve on their own, the practice would have seemed successful, and therefore it would have been propagated and expanded by later generations. Broca's theory skillfully integrated his anthropological and medical knowledge and helped to create the exciting environment in which scientists pondered what Neolithic and primitive people really knew regarding the brain and surgery.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1417-1425
Number of pages9
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Broca
  • Convulsive disorders
  • Epilepsy
  • Horsley
  • Neurosurgery
  • Trepanation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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