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JAMA 100 Years Ago
July 23/30, 2003


Author Affiliations

JAMA 100 Years Ago Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.

JAMA. 2003;290(4):542. doi:10.1001/jama.290.4.542-a

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 affairs.