Pierre-Paul Broca

A French physician, anatomist, and anthropologist best known for his role in the discovery of specialized functions of different brain regions.

Pierre-Paul Broca, the son of a Huguenot doctor, was born in the Dordogne region of France in 1824. He began medical school at the age of 17 and graduated at the age of 24. In addition to his medical diploma, he earned degrees in mathematics, physics, and literature. His early specialization was in surgical pathology, with advanced training in anatomy and surgery. He was also very interested in the field of anthropology, to which he made significant scientific contributions, helping to establish its solid scientific foundation.

In 1847, Broca was a member of a commission charged with reporting on archaeological excavations of a cemetery. The project permitted him to combine his anatomical and mathematical skills with his interests in anthropology. The discovery in 1856 of Neanderthal Man drew Broca into anthropology. Controversy surrounded the interpretation of the findings on the anatomy of the Neanderthal. It was clearly a human skull but more primitive and apelike than a modern skull, and the soil stratum in which it was found was indicative of a very early date. The potential implications for evolutionary theory of this anthropological find required thorough examination of the evidence to determine decisively whether it was simply a congenitally deformed Homo sapiens or a primitive human form. Both as an early supporter of the work of Charles Darwin and an expert in human anatomy, Broca supported the latter view, which eventually prevailed, subsequent to the discovery of the much more primitive Java Man (then known as Pith-ecanthropus, but later referred to as Homo erectus).

Paul Pierre Broca, French physician circa 1870.

Paul Pierre Broca, French physician circa 1870.
(© Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Broca is best known for his role in the discovery of specialized functions of different brain regions. In 1861, he was able to show, using post-mortem analysis of patients who had lost the ability to speak, that such loss was associated with damage to a specific area of the brain located toward the front of the brain's left hemisphere. This region became known as Broca's area, or Broca's convolution. Aside from the importance to the understanding of human physiology, Broca's findings also addressed questions concerning the evolution of language.

Given the importance assigned to spoken language in human evolution, research scientists began to look for the physical preconditions of speech. That apes have many of the anatomical parts necessary for speech suggested that the shape and arrangement of the vocal apparatus was insufficient for the production of speech. The vocalizations produced by most other animals are involuntary or reflexive and incapable of intentional alteration. Human speech necessitates codifying thought and transmitting it in patterned strings of sound. The area of the brain isolated by Broca sends the code to other parts of the brain that control the muscles of the face, jaw, tongue, palate, and larynx, setting the speech apparatus in motion. This area and a companion area that controls the understanding of language, known as Wernicke's area, are detectable in early fossil skulls of the genus Homo. The brain of Homo was evolving toward the use of language, although the vocal chamber was still inadequate to articulate speech. Broca discovered one piece in the puzzle of human communication and speech, which permits the transmission of culture.

Equally important, Broca contributed to the development of physical anthropology, one of the four anthropological subfields. Craniology, the scientific measurement of the skull, was a major focus of physical anthropology during Broca's lifetime. Inaccurately considering contemporary human groups as if they were anatomically analogous to their ancestors, anthropologists became interested in the nature of human variability and attempted to explain the varying levels of technological development observed worldwide by seeking a correspondence between cultural development and physical characteristics. Broca furthered these studies by inventing more than 27 instruments for making measurements of the human body and by developing standardized techniques of measurement.

See also Brain ; Language development ; Speech perception .



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