Phantoms, Brains and Bodies: Geoffrey Jefferson and Rethinking the Mind, 1917-1939

Dr Rebecca Wynter (University of Birmingham) is currently a Visiting Research Fellow in the John Rylands Research Institute. She is studying the neurologist and neurosurgeon, Geoffrey Jefferson (1886-1961), whose extensive papers are held at the Library. She writes:

I have been lucky enough to be awarded a three-month Visiting Fellowship at the John Rylands Research Institute to consult the papers of Sir Geoffrey Jefferson (1886-1961). Jefferson, a founder of British neurosurgery, was a familiar figure at the University and hospitals of Manchester. If he is remembered today, it is for an eponymously-named spinal fracture, or for a 1952 BBC debate about artificial intelligence, counterbalancing the position of another Manchester professor, the mathematician, computing pioneer and Second World War code-breaker, Alan Turing.

One aim of my research is to draw Jefferson out of the shadows in much the same way as has been done for Turing, thanks in part to the archives at The University of Manchester Library.  Jefferson’s life does not hold the same haunted quality as Turing’s, but he too was a man of science working in the murk of world war. It is Jefferson’s Great War-era medical work with head injuries and in the aftercare of amputation which provides the focus of my research at the JRRI.

Geoffrey Jefferson's passport, showing him in civilian dress and military uniform, ref. JEF/1/4/2/1.
Geoffrey Jefferson’s passport, showing him in civilian dress and military uniform, ref. JEF/1/4/2/1.

In 1915, Jefferson was among the first staff of the Anglo-Russian Hospital in Petrograd (now St Petersburg). He set about repairing soldiers with gunshot wounds to the head, using the ghostly shapes cast by bullets in x-rays, and later publishing on the subject. Jefferson returned to Manchester, working from June 1917 to April 1918 at the military 2nd Western General Hospital. Whilst the Library has a rich personal archive from the renowned orthopaedic surgeon Harry Platt – Jefferson’s colleague in Manchester and lifelong friend – only traces of the Hospital and its patients at this time remain in the records.

In Jefferson’s papers, in a small notebook, the spirits of some of these patients can be glimpsed. The pages are peopled by men who, through war or accident, had lost arms or legs, fingers or feet, and were experiencing phantom limbs. The notebook therefore occupies an odd space. It survives when the men and their life stories have vanished. It describes limbs that have now been lost twice – once physically from the men, and then from their lived reality. Yet these apparitions continue to linger due to the fragile and often throw-away material of paper. Through the experiences of a phenomenon which has been at the heart of modern attempts to understand the divisions between mind and body, Jefferson sought to record personal descriptions of the frequently painful sensations the men’s limbs had left behind.

Page from Jefferson's Amputation Notebook relating to Harold, ref. JEF/1/1/2/1.
Page from Jefferson’s Amputation Notebook relating to ‘Harold’, ref. JEF/1/1/2/1.

‘Harold’ (aged 22), for example, had needed to have his left leg amputated from the lower thigh after a gunshot wound had resulted in gangrene in July 1917. Harold endured re-amputation in October of that year and had been troubled ever since. There was pain from an ankle no longer there. His left sole tingled. Muscles tensed. His lost toes were straight, but his foot felt clawed and ‘as if it had been put in boiling water’. Like others in the volume, Harold’s description is accompanied by Jefferson’s ink sketches of his stump as it physically appeared, and a rendering of his missing foot and portion of his leg. The drawing of his foot is arched, and its tingling area shaded. The depiction of his leg is reminiscent of a cuts-of-meat chart, with Harold’s toes, foot, ankle, stump, and mid-leg resembling five joints; this time, the shading is used to evoke the absence of any feelings from the thigh-knee-and-shin joint. In describing the presence of something no longer there, Jefferson sought to understand what the sensations of Harold and the other patients meant, and how temperature and touch affected the brain’s mapping of the body.

Beyond his haunting, we know little more of Harold. He barely grazed Jefferson’s long and eventful life in Russia, Manchester and neurosurgery. But each encounter we have leaves a trace. And with the benefit of research at the John Rylands Research Institute, Harold’s experiences can appear alongside Jefferson’s notions of mind and brain and give form to fleeting phantoms past.

1 comment on “Phantoms, Brains and Bodies: Geoffrey Jefferson and Rethinking the Mind, 1917-1939

  1. Pingback: Neurosurgery & Long-term Medical Effects of WWI | John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

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