JAMA 100 Years Ago Section Editor: Jennifer
Reiling, Assistant Editor.
One of the Emerson anecdotes that came out during the recent celebration
of the hundredth anniversary of the Concord philosopher's birthday, seems
to deserve a place in the memory of American medical men, because it is such
a striking illustration of aphasia. Emerson, who had been the greatest master
of words in his generation, lost the power of speech as the result of a brain
lesion, though he retained much of his power to think with the vigor and distinction
of earlier days. A contributor to the June Atlantic illustrates
his aphasic condition by retelling the story Emerson told of a carriage ride
during which it rained. "After a while the—the—the—the—How
do you call what stores up water till it is suddenly—suddenly—what
shall I say? Not squeezed out?" "A sponge?" his hearer suggested. "No, no,"
with the sweetest of smiles and a sweeping motion of the hand up to the sky.
"The clouds perhaps?" was the next suggestion. "Yes, the clouds began to roll
up and threaten rain. I had forgotten to take with me my—my—my—By
the way, what is it that people always borrow and never return?" "Umbrella?"
was suggested. "Yes, umbrella," and so on with other lacunæ in the conversation.
The contributor notes: "While, as everybody recognizes, the inmost philosophical
essence of the umbrella was thus intellectually grasped, the mere empirical
designation of its silk, stick and whalebone would not turn up." The story
illustrates very well the merely mechanical hindrance that aphasia is to the
expression of thought, though in severe forms it may apparently deprive even
a vigorously thinking mind of much of its capacity for properly expressing
itself. It is this very feature which constitutes the essence of aphasia.
Yet this is often supposed to indicate, even by the medical man, that there
must be some impairment of the mental processes behind, not seldom to the
perversion of justice in the making of wills and the regulation of business
IS MEDICINE ATTRACTIVE TO SCHOLARLY MEN?. JAMA. 2003;290(4):542. doi:10.1001/jama.290.4.542-a