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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Generations: The Neuroscience Dynasty of Cécile and Marthe Vogt

“There was a tunnel, and at the end a beautiful light, and I heard the voices of my family calling to me.” For centuries this, the standard refrain of those brought back from the brink of death, assured us of a warm and comfortable Something waiting for us beyond the boundaries of this life. Then, in the early Twentieth Century, along came pathoclisis, the brain child of the greatest neuroscientific power couple this side of Jules and Augusta Déjerine, Cécile and Oskar Vogt. After years of studying brains in distress, they observed that certain affronts to the brain, like a lack of oxygen or the presence of toxins, instead of affecting all cerebral tissue equally, tended to hit particular regions of the brain more severely, creating a staggered response to extreme conditions whereby some parts (such as the occipital and temporal lobes responsible for visual and auditory processing) start blinking out before others, presenting us with comforting if misleading lights, tunnels, and familiar sounds on our way off this mortal coil.

It was not the first nail that the Vogts drove into the coffin of humanity’s spiritual sense of self, and it would certainly not be the last, for if there was one thing that drove Oskar and Cécile through all the decades of struggle that would mark their years together, it was a multidisciplinary devotion to studying the connections between the structure of the brain and our experience of the world and ourselves as mediated by that brain. Using brain sectioning methods ten times finer than those of the Déjerines, a glistening battery of distinct staining techniques, and new technologies that allowed the non-invasive measurement of brain activity, they were able to map some 200 cortical areas of the brain associated with distinct functions.

For both Oskar and Cécile, the rise to the pinnacle of the international neuroscientific community originated in unconventional soil. Oskar Vogt (1870-1959) was from a Danish family that only became German with Prussia’s absorption of Schleswig-Holstein in 1864, and was inspired from a young age by the implications of Darwinism for the study of psychology, and the relation of genetic and structural factors to human behavior, perception, and disease, in spite of the fact that these interests landed him into repeated conflict with his religiously-inclined elders and teachers. Cécile Mugnier (1875-1962), meanwhile, was born in Annecy, located in the mountainous Haute Savoie region of eastern France. Her father, who had never married her mother, died when she was two years old, and her subsequent life’s course and education was directed by a wealthy aunt who had in mind for her a career as a nun. Cécile, however, had other plans in mind, and was distinctly skeptical of the Church’s description of the Judaeo-Christian God as both all-powerful and benevolent.

Having lost the patronage of her aunt, Cécile proceeded forward with her education through private teachers, and by 1891 she had received her high school’s highest award for academic distinction, and in 1893 took the baccalaureate examinations that earned for her a Baccalaureat es sciences in September and a Baccalaureat es lettres in October. With her interest in the connections between psychology and the body, it was all but given that she would make her way to Paris, where the warring camps of the Déjerines at the Salpêtrière and Pierre Marie at Bicêtre were daily probing the mysteries of the brain’s structure and function. By 1896, she was installed with Marie at Bicêtre, where she was distinguished by the quality of her work and her passion for brain research. It almost all came crashing down, however, in 1897, when she discovered she was pregnant. Though we do not know conclusively who the father was, Vogt’s biographer Birgit Kofler-Bettschart has a more than plausible theory that it was oral surgery pioneer Hippolyte Morestin, who delivered the child discreetly in 1898. Having a child out of wedlock could well have ended both Cécile’s career and her prospect of future marriage, but fortunately in 1898 she met a man entirely indifferent to societal expectations for women, and who saw Cécile solely in terms of the quality of her mind and the depth of her passion for scientific research - Oskar Vogt.

Besides their love of brain research, the two had much in common - both born in smaller towns to elderly fathers who passed away early in their lives, both religious non-conformists, and both committed to the idea that the key to psychology lay not in the formulation of abstract theories, but rather in the multidisciplinary investigation of the brain’s structure and function. Vogt was at the time studying at the lab of the Déjerines, while Cécile was working with their arch-nemesis Pierre Marie, lending the romance a certain intoxicating Montague and Capulet vibe, with love winning over academic rivalry in the end. In her diary, Cécile wrote, “Our relationship did not begin with great passion, but step by step formed itself into an ever deeper connection. And he loved Claire [her illegitimate daughter], which was an additional positive point.”

While Cécile remained in Paris to finish her doctoral degree (awarded in 1900 for her paper, “Etude sur la myélinisation des hémisphères cérébraux,” which employed Weigert staining methods to investigate the placement of myelinated neurons in the cerebrum), Oskar was in Berlin, laying the groundwork for a private brain research institute to be funded by donations from the Krupp family, whose wealth from ammunition manufacturing was virtually without limit at the time, and whose good-will Oskar had earned by treating several members of the family with hypnosis while working at Bad Alexander. The pair married in 1899, and soon founded the Neurologische Zentralstation, the first in a series of research institutes the pair would erect over the course of the next half century.

Having a private research center at such a comparably young age was both a blessing and curse, however, as it focused the concentrated ire of the Berlin neurological establishment firmly upon their persons. How dare these young upstarts circumvent the holy towers of academia and secure independent financing to pursue questions of interest to them without the direction and control of their elders? The Vogts’ success, combined with Oskar’s combative personality, would earn them enemies at this stage of their careers that would dog their steps for decades to come.

For the moment, however, all was well, and the Vogts set out on a joint research program that encompassed cytoarchitectonics (how neural cells are arranged into distinct regions in the brain), genetics, psychology, and psychotherapy. Cécile made strides in studying the architecture of the thalamus that laid out several thalamic centers and their connections (1909), and diseases of the extrapyramidal system, which resulted in the re-discovery of a malformation of the corpus striatum that produced slow involuntary facial and hand movements (1911).

Through a variety of staining methods that highlighted different cell communities within the brain, new sectioning methods that allowed the slicing of brains into some 20,000 sections instead of the 2,000 or so characteristic of the Déjerines’ early work, and new techniques in clearly photographing brain sections for reference, the Vogts were rapidly building up an international reputation for the quality of their analysis of the brain’s structure. In 1911, when the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Promotion of the Sciences was founded with the intent of pouring resources into scientific study, it was apparent to many that a brain research division should be created, but the question lingered, who was to run it? It was a battle between the reputation the Vogts had built up and the power of the German academic machine, which was decided ultimately in the Vogts’ favor after the Krupps swooped in with a million mark donation that was more or less dependent upon Oskar Vogt being named director of the new brain research foundation, which earned the Vogts even more enmity from a scientific establishment ill-disposed towards them, but which also ensured them of a place to work, where they could determine their own research program, for the next two decades.

Though appointed head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Brain Institute in 1914, the combined effects of World War I and the post war economic depression pushed the construction of a new building for the Institute to 1931, at which point the Vogts’ daughter Marthe was brought on as director of the Chemical Division, about whom more in a bit. The Vogts survived the 1920s through the continued support of the Krupps, the awarding of a Rockefeller grant, and support from the Soviet Union somewhat grimly tied to the affair of Lenin’s Brain, which Oskar was hired by the Soviets to analyze in order to find biological evidence for Lenin’s mental superiority. During this time, they pressed forward with their research of the function of different parts of the brain through direct electrical stimulation of primate brains, and later through some of the first uses of electroencephalogram technology to measure human brain activity.

Returning to the subject of Lenin’s brain we are treading on tricky ground, for part of the Vogt research program was related to the comparison of brains of exceptional individuals, including those exceptionally brilliant, who often donated their brains to the Vogts for study, and those exceptionally troubled, including criminals whose brains were sent to the Vogts after their owners’ execution. As part of their larger study of what brain areas are associated with what physiological functions, they endeavored to find out what parts of the brain might be more well developed in a great poet or mathematician versus a murderer or paranoiac. To the Vogts, this was just a matter of figuring out What Does What in the brain, but to a certain party rising to prominence in Germany in the late 1920s, it was research that rang eerily familiar to their own eugenicist leadings, and it would not be long until the Vogts had to figure out how to approach the Nazis.

Cécile and Oskar both despised the Nazis, but recognized their power, as leaders of a major scientific research institute in Germany that was shielded by the Krupps, whose weapons were a critical component of Hitler’s plans, to potentially protect individuals working for them who would otherwise face persecution. So, while Cécile continued analyzing and cataloguing the growing inventory of the Vogt brain library (her centrality being attested to by the fact that the abbreviations used throughout the system are of the French terms for the items in question, rather than the German ones), Oskar played up to Nazi high officials how well his study of superior brain types matched their goals, while protecting the Jews and women on staff who, by Nazi law, ought to have been relieved of their positions.

Though able to charm his way into the good graces of many higher Nazi officials, his cachet with the foot soldiers of the Nazi regime, as represented in the local SA squad, was less well developed, and on two occasions he had to sit by while his institute was raided by SA men, and his staff taken away for rough questioning. By the mid 1930s, it was clear that even his association with the Krupps, and theoretically Uebermensch-leaning research program, couldn’t long protect him from those elements in the Nazi party who had grown resentful of his independence. In 1935, Marthe left the Institute for London, where she began a career every bit as successful as that of her parents, making this as good a time as any to check in on Marthe’s story. She was born in 1903 in Berlin, some ten years before her sister, the future developmental geneticist Marguerite Vogt. She was from a young age her father’s companion on trips to gather the insects he needed for his genetics research, and was a student at the Augusta Viktoria-Schule from 1909 to 1922, where her favorite subjects were mathematics and physics. In 1922 she matriculated at Berlin University, where she divided her time between the study of medicine and chemistry without the need to worry about supporting herself that was such a constant among her classmates during those lean and uncertain years.

Following her graduation in 1927, she did her graduate work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biochemistry, earning her PhD in 1929, by which time she was working under Paul Trendelenberg at the University of Berlin, where she learned the endocrinological techniques that would define the most fruitful part of her career. Her experience in endocrinology, medicine, and organic chemistry made her the perfect person, in spite of her relative youth, to take up the leadership of the Chemistry Division of her parents’ Brain Research Institute in 1931, where she carried out research, in line with her parents’ theory of pathoclisis, about how drugs differentially interact with different parts of the brain.

By 1935, she recognized the writing on the wall, however, and took up Sir Henry Dale’s invitation to work with him at the National Institute for Medical Research. Here, in London, her real work would begin, analyzing the neurochemicals that seemed to play a role in coordinating neural action. She worked with Feldberg and Dale on the role that acetylcholine plays in motor nerve signaling, and launched herself from that foundation to a study of what role acetylcholine might play in the brain itself, which was distinctly new territory at the time. With the arrival of the Second World War, however, she was classified as an enemy alien in London, and was due for incarceration when her colleagues rallied around her with letters of support for her work and got her reclassified as a “friendly alien,” allowing her to continue her work. After receiving a Cambridge PhD in pharmacology in 1938, she began working at the Pharmacological Laboratories at Bloomsbury Square in 1941, where she initiated her work (to be continued after the war at Edinburgh) investigating a plethora of neurochemicals, including acetylcholine, adrenaline, noradrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin. In a seminal 1948 paper, co-authored with William Feldberg, she demonstrated that acetylcholine plays a role in brain signaling similar to that which she had observed it playing in motor nerve-muscle communication. Through dozens of papers minutely reporting the results of her painstaking bioassaying of positively miniscule quantities of neurochemicals present in different parts of the brain during different activities, she convincingly argued for connections between increased concentration and activity that elucidated the role that neurotransmitters and neuroglandular secretions played in the brain.

In 1952, Marthe Vogt would be honored for her work with induction into the Royal Society. Her parents, meanwhile, were navigating with their own idiosyncratic aplomb the political landscape of post-war Germany. In 1936, they had left behind the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute at Berlin-Buch to set up yet a new brain research institute at Neustadt, in Southern Germany, where they continued their work with a small but dedicated group of researchers through the war years, working independently as was their wont while other neuroscientists latched onto the Nazi engine as their best means of advancement. After the war, the Vogts moved somewhat seamlessly back into scientific life, having been for so long so far from the centers of power of the Nazi establishment, a fact resented by their Berlin colleagues, whose de-Nazification path was less clear, and who bristled at Oskar’s ongoing accusations of collaboration with the regime. For Cécile, the war years were lean but largely happy ones, if punctuated by Oskar’s infidelity (which some acquaintances of the time claim she not only knew about, but helped facilitate, as a matter of keeping the family together), with the pared-down Neustadt institute pushing forward its research agenda with new techniques, including the Caspersson method for using UV light absorption to track the activity of DNA and RNA during neuron genesis and growth, which led them to new theories about a future day when genetic manipulation could be used to combat neural diseases, a day we are just now approaching.

Oskar passed away in 1959, and after a year of preparations to ensure a worthy successor to their nearly sixty years of joint work, Cécile left Germany in 1960, to join Marthe in England, where she remained until her death in 1962. Marthe, for her part, would continue her research for another two decades, including investigations into the release and re-uptake of serotonin, and into the development of new drugs that treated neural conditions caused by neurotransmitter imbalances, a line of research which has spawned billion dollar industries today but was at the time in its tentative infancy. She continued publishing sporadically throughout her retirement in the 1970s and into the 1980s. In 1988, she moved to La Jolla, California, where her sister Marguerite had worked as a geneticist at the Salk Institute since 1963. With the onset of Marthe’s Alzheimer’s Disease, Marguerite increasingly took up the role of caretaker to her older sister, who passed away in 2003, one day after her 100th birthday.

From the publication of Cécile Mugnier’s dissertation in 1900 to the release of Marthe Vogt’s last paper in 1988, mother and daughter had between them charted the regions of the brain, catalogued its variable response to different chemicals and threats, outlined connections between its different processing centers, elucidated which brain areas corresponded with which physiological functions, discovered the first neurotransmitters at work within the brain, and developed novel approaches to treating brain diseases harnessing new ideas emerging from genetics and pharmacology that echo into modern practice. In the process, they might have taken away some of the comfort at the end of the tunnel, but for all of the knowledge they gave us about the universe we carry with us within the thin confines of our skulls, it seems a small price to pay.


The best book for Cécile Vogt is the aforementioned Cécile Vogt: Pionierin der Hirnforschung (2022) by Birgit Kofler-Bettschart, but if you want something in English, a close second is Igor Klatzo’s Cécile and Oskar Vogt: The Visionaries of Modern Neuroscience (2002). Klatzo was a neuroscientist who worked with the Vogts during their Neustadt era, so his insights into their daily lives during this era are interesting, though I would say the focus of that book is much more on Oskar than Cécile, and of the daughters, on Marguerite more than Marthe. For Marthe, there isn’t a standalone book on her life, but Alan Cuthbert’s celebration of her work for the Royal Society upon her death in 2003 is a nice overview of the full scope of her neuroglandular and neurotransmitter researches of the 1940s through 1960s.

And if you want to read about more great women in the history of psychology and neuroscience, keep your eyes peeled for my History of Women in Psychology and Neuroscience, which is coming in the Spring of 2024 from Pen and Sword books!


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