Article ID: CBB395383059

“The Sleeping Beauty of the Brain”: Memory, MIT, Montreal, and the Origins of Neuroscience (2021)


This essay traces the simultaneous development of two distinct efforts to unify the brain sciences in the twentieth century—one originating at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) and the other at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Both efforts coalesced around investigations of memory but displayed profoundly different disciplinary styles. At the MNI, investigations of memory loss in surgical patients crystallized a form of brain research that eventually became the paradigm of interdisciplinarity for the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO). At MIT, meanwhile, the biophysicist Francis Schmitt aimed to transcend the different brain and mind sciences by discovering a “memory molecule” akin to DNA—this became the basis for his Neurosciences Research Program (NRP). While both organizations failed to achieve the unification they desired, IBRO and the NRP did achieve a social unification of the brain sciences in the 1960s. IBRO established much of the social capital for the Society for Neuroscience, and the NRP promoted the possibilities of a new transdisciplinary “neuroscience.” Beyond reframing the history of modern neuroscience, the story of the MNI/IBRO, the NRP, and the problem of memory can help us to examine different and contrasting approaches to “interdisciplinarity” in twentieth-century science.

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Authors & Contributors
Adams, Annmarie
Borck, Cornelius
Eling, Paul
Feindel, William
Guida, Alessandro
Hofman, Michel A.
Journal of the History of the Neurosciences
Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Endeavour: Review of the Progress of Science
History of the Human Sciences
Medicina nei Secoli - Arte e Scienza
Nuncius: Annali di Storia della Scienza
McGill-Queen's University Press
Columbia University
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Columbia University Press
Research institutes; research stations
Nervous system
Interdisciplinary approach to knowledge
Penfield, Wilder Graves
Broca, Paul
Charcot, Jean Martin
Hallervorden, Julius
Inaudi, Jacques
Vogt, Cécile
Time Periods
20th century
19th century
21st century
20th century, early
20th century, late
18th century
Montreal (Quebec, Canada)
United States
Soviet Union
Montreal Neurological Institute
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
International Brain Research Organization

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