Henry Head: His Influence on the Development of Ideas on Sensation



R A Henson

Publication Identity

British Medical Bulletin, Volume 33, Issue 2, May 1977, Pages 91–96




Henry Head was born on 4 August 1861 into a moderately prosperous Quaker family in Stamford Hill, London. Lord Lister was a first cousin.

He was educated at Charterhouse and spent his last school holidays dissecting in D’Arcy Power’s laboratory at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, before travelling to Germany for a term’s study at Halle. He went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1880. On coming down with a double first in the Natural Science Tripos, he joined K E K Hering in Prague and worked there for two years. After clinical studies at University College Hospital, London, he qualified in 1890 and was appointed assistant physician to

The London Hospital in 1896, thus joining J Hughlings Jackson there. He retired from the staff in 1919 when the first symptoms of Parkinsonism appeared, and he died in 1940. Head’s scientific capacity became manifest during his
sojourn in Prague. It was characteristic that he had previously visited the leading German universities to find the laboratories and staff best suited to his purposes. His “paradoxical reflex” (see Head, 1889) proved an important landmark in the respiratory physiology of the newborn (Cross, 1961).

During this study he used Johannes Gad’s technique of taking sensory nerves to particularly low temperatures and studying the differential paralysis of function which ensued; furthermore, he made cuffed endobronchial and endotracheal tubes for use in studying respiratory function, and it seems that this was an innovation.

The episode with Hering showed that Head was a highly capable laboratory worker. Many years later he gave the first account of the effect of positive accelera- tion on pilots in flight (Head, 1918). The factors which led Head to pursue neurology are not known at this time.

Naturally he was a general physician, the tradition for neurologists in Great Britain until comparatively recent times, and his skills in this direction are evident in his early papers. It may have been his wide medical interest which persuaded him to undertake a study of visceral sensation for his MD thesis.

There was to be no more formal laboratory work and, as he said, the clinical examination became his laboratory. His physiological training influenced him throughout his life and he remarked, in one of his papers on visceral pain, that he was not concerned with disease but that he was using disease to study pain. From the outset he devised detailed methods of examining sensation and laid great weight on their reliability, though his confidence was to some extent misplaced. The development and nature of his views on the afferent nervous system are traced here largely in his own words.