Behind the smile

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By | From the Collections

One of the more arresting photographs in the library’s collections shows a man undergoing electrical stimulation of his facial muscles to help understand the nature of expressions. Charles Darwin used the original photographs, made by Dr. Guillaume Duchenne, in his Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872. While most may associate Duchenne with these images, he also gave his name to the condition still known today as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD).

Duchenne’s father was a French privateer decorated by Napoleon with the Legion of Honour. The young Guillaume grew up next to the sea in Boulogne-sur-Mer, in the Nord Pas-de-Calais, before studying medicine in Paris, completing his studies in 1831.

Not readily accepted by the medical establishment because of his provincial accent and coarse manners, Duchenne nevertheless went on to run a very successful practice and pioneer the use of electricity in a medical context. He was even called ‘De Boulogne’ to distinguish him from a fashionable society physician named Dr Duchesne. Duchenne was an inventive Doctor as his legacy proves – he also developed a ‘harpoon’ needle design that allowed him to perform muscle biopsies without anaesthesia.Those of you who can remember applying electricity to dead frogs’ legs in Biology at school may like to join me in thanking Duchenne for helping children to enjoy the fantasy of ‘reanimating’ dead tissue.
Danny Rees

Danny Rees

Hi, I am Danny Rees, an Engagement Officer for the Wellcome Library, one of my interests is the human face; its physiognomy, expressions and ideas about what constitutes beauty. When not at work I enjoy the Kent countryside and consider radio to be one of the best things in life.

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