11 August 2009

Great moments in crayfish research: Before he was famous

Sigmund FreudToday’s post is a bit of a cheat, because the research is not as well known as the researcher who performed it. Nevertheless, it’s fun to look back into the history of crayfish research and find none other than Sigmund Freud, he of psychoanalysis, dream interpretation, and much more.

In his 20s, Freud was a comparative neurobiologist. His doctoral dissertation was on fish spinal cords. Freud later worked in the lab of Ernst Brücke. There, Freud studied crayfish and freshwater crabs.

Freud’s contribution was apparently quite significant... although it’s sometimes hard to work out exactly what that contribution was. Those of us who do not read German can’t read the original paper, and must rely on the translations of others to get an appreciation of the context and significance of the work. I’ve read Freud’s crayfish described in various ways, ranging from showing that the axons were connected to cell bodies to showing that neurons contained a cytoskeleton.

Freud's drawing of crayfish neuronsUnfortunately, Freud found that research didn’t pay enough for him to get married, so he went into medical practice. And that was the start of the twisting road leading to the work that Freud is best known for.

Given the controversies over Freud’s later work in psychology, however, one could make the case that both biology and psychology might have been better off if Freud stayed a neurobiologist.

Interestingly, Freud was far from alone in starting a research career in invertebrates before becoming famous in psychology.

Jean Piaget worked on snail behaviour, publishing papers while he was still in high school, before his studies on how children think made him the premiere developmental psychologist.

Alfred Binet did his doctoral work on insect nervous systems, which was later overshadowed by his development of one of the first intelligence tests.

Links

Sigmund Freud's place in the history of the neuronal cytoskeleton
The Life and Times of a Ten-legged Cannibal
Freud was a pioneering neuroscientist (Added 10 March 2014)

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