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Georges Gilles de la Tourette. Beyond the eponym

Posted in Book Reviews on 1st Aug 2019

Author: Olivier Walusinski
Published by: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Price: £29.99
Pages: 490
ISBN: 9780190636036
Reviewed by: AJ Larner, Cognitive Function Clinic, WCNN, Liverpool.

Perhaps because of its euphony, the name of Georges Gilles de la Tourette often becomes embedded in the neurological consciousness at an early stage of clinical training, the more so from the association of his syndrome of motor and phonic tics with coprolalia, scatology being particularly memorable for some reason. But who knows anything about the man, other than perhaps his association with Charcot and the Salpêtrière school?

Olivier Walusinski has a long established interest in this history of neurology in 19th century France (as well as of Yawning), manifest in many journal publications. In this volume he shares his research into the life of GGdelaT, and it is a fascinating story: for example, how many neurologists can claim to have survived attempted assassination (in 1893)? For those with an interest in etymology, there is a helpful explanation of why the amputation to “Tourette” syndrome is incorrect, since based on a toponymic; if abbreviation is required, “Gilles” syndrome would be more appropriate.

By far the longest chapter in the book is, appropriately, devoted to the eponymous syndrome. I was always perplexed that the original report of 1884 (previously translated by Lajonchere et al, Arch Neurol 1996;53:567-74) was ostensibly devoted to startle syndromes (“jumping” of Maine, latah of Malaysia, and myriachit of Siberia) but it transpires that the tic disorder was then conceived to be related to these other disorders of excessive movement.

In addition, Walusinski gives a contextualised analysis of many of the other major publications, including a treatise on hysteria. Clearly Gilles de la Tourette was an indefatigable writer, also interested in biography (he wrote a work on the pioneer French journalist Renaudot). He himself had extensive interactions with journalists (not least to promote his own career) and wrote occasionally for the lay press under the nom de plume of Paracelsus. To what extent developing neurosyphilis may have contributed to some of his self-promoting actions (“megalomania”) remains speculative.
Anyone interested in the origins of clinical neurology in late 19th century France will want to read this scholarly volume, which is well presented with many illustrations from the author’s personal collection. There are a few niggly errors (e.g. Helmotz, p.186, is presumably Helmholtz, they share the same dates; Lucerne, p.112, should perhaps be Lausanne; figure numbers inconsistent with text in Chapter 8).