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A History of Science, Volume 4

Part 5 out of 5

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sections for microscopical examination--the basal structure upon
which almost all the later advances have been conducted. Muller
presently discovered that bichromate of potassium in solution
makes the best of fluids for the preliminary preservation and
hardening of the tissues. Stilling, in 1842, perfected the
method by introducing the custom of cutting a series of
consecutive sections of the same tissue, in order to trace nerve
tracts and establish spacial relations. Then from time to time
mechanical ingenuity added fresh details of improvement. It was
found that pieces of hardened tissue of extreme delicacy can be
made better subject to manipulation by being impregnated with
collodion or celloidine and embedded in paraffine. Latterly it
has become usual to cut sections also from fresh tissues,
unchanged by chemicals, by freezing them suddenly with vaporized
ether or, better, carbonic acid. By these methods, and with the
aid of perfected microtomes, the worker of recent periods avails
himself of sections of brain tissues of a tenuousness which the
early investigators could not approach.

But more important even than the cutting of thin sections is the
process of making the different parts of the section visible, one
tissue differentiated from another. The thin section, as the
early workers examined it, was practically colorless, and even
the crudest details of its structure were made out with extreme
difficulty. Remak did, indeed, manage to discover that the brain
tissue is cellular, as early as 1833, and Ehrenberg in the same
year saw that it is also fibrillar, but beyond this no great
advance was made until 1858, when a sudden impulse was received
from a new process introduced by Gerlach. The process itself was
most simple, consisting essentially of nothing more than the
treatment of a microscopical section with a solution of carmine.
But the result was wonderful, for when such a section was placed
under the lens it no longer appeared homogeneous. Sprinkled
through its substance were seen irregular bodies that had taken
on a beautiful color, while the matrix in which they were
embedded remained unstained. In a word, the central nerve cell
had sprung suddenly into clear view.

A most interesting body it proved, this nerve cell, or ganglion
cell, as it came to be called. It was seen to be exceedingly
minute in size, requiring high powers of the microscope to make
it visible. It exists in almost infinite numbers, not, however,
scattered at random through the brain and spinal cord. On the
contrary, it is confined to those portions of the central nervous
masses which to the naked eye appear gray in color, being
altogether wanting in the white substance which makes up the
chief mass of the brain. Even in the gray matter, though
sometimes thickly distributed, the ganglion cells are never in
actual contact one with another; they always lie embedded in
intercellular tissues, which came to be known, following Virchow,
as the neuroglia.

Each ganglion cell was seen to be irregular in contour, and to
have jutting out from it two sets of minute fibres, one set
relatively short, indefinitely numerous, and branching in every
direction; the other set limited in number, sometimes even
single, and starting out directly from the cell as if bent on a
longer journey. The numerous filaments came to be known as
protoplasmic processes; the other fibre was named, after its
discoverer, the axis cylinder of Deiters. It was a natural
inference, though not clearly demonstrable in the sections, that
these filamentous processes are the connecting links between the
different nerve cells and also the channels of communication
between nerve cells and the periphery of the body. The white
substance of brain and cord, apparently, is made up of such
connecting fibres, thus bringing the different ganglion cells
everywhere into communication one with another.

In the attempt to trace the connecting nerve tracts through this
white substance by either macroscopical or microscopical methods,
most important aid is given by a method originated by Waller in
1852. Earlier than that, in 1839, Nasse had discovered that a
severed nerve cord degenerates in its peripheral portions. Waller
discovered that every nerve fibre, sensory or motor, has a nerve
cell to or from which it leads, which dominates its nutrition, so
that it can only retain its vitality while its connection with
that cell is intact. Such cells he named trophic centres.
Certain cells of the anterior part of the spinal cord, for
example, are the trophic centres of the spinal motor nerves.
Other trophic centres, governing nerve tracts in the spinal cord
itself, are in the various regions of the brain. It occurred to
Waller that by destroying such centres, or by severing the
connection at various regions between a nervous tract and its
trophic centre, sharply defined tracts could be made to
degenerate, and their location could subsequently be accurately
defined, as the degenerated tissues take on a changed aspect,
both to macroscopical and microscopical observation. Recognition
of this principle thus gave the experimenter a new weapon of
great efficiency in tracing nervous connections. Moreover, the
same principle has wide application in case of the human subject
in disease, such as the lesion of nerve tracts or the destruction
of centres by localized tumors, by embolisms, or by traumatisms.

All these various methods of anatomical examination combine to
make the conclusion almost unavoidable that the central ganglion
cells are the veritable "centres" of nervous activity to which so
many other lines of research have pointed. The conclusion was
strengthened by experiments of the students of motor
localization, which showed that the veritable centres of their
discovery lie, demonstrably, in the gray cortex of the brain, not
in the white matter. But the full proof came from pathology. At
the hands of a multitude of observers it was shown that in
certain well-known diseases of the spinal cord, with resulting
paralysis, it is the ganglion cells themselves that are found to
be destroyed. Similarly, in the case of sufferers from chronic
insanities, with marked dementia, the ganglion cells of the
cortex of the brain are found to have undergone degeneration. The
brains of paretics in particular show such degeneration, in
striking correspondence with their mental decadence. The position
of the ganglion cell as the ultimate centre of nervous activities
was thus placed beyond dispute.

Meantime, general acceptance being given the histological scheme
of Gerlach, according to which the mass of the white substance of
the brain is a mesh-work of intercellular fibrils, a proximal
idea seemed attainable of the way in which the ganglionic
activities are correlated, and, through association, built up, so
to speak, into the higher mental processes. Such a conception
accorded beautifully with the ideas of the associationists, who
had now become dominant in psychology. But one standing puzzle
attended this otherwise satisfactory correlation of anatomical
observations and psychic analyses. It was this: Since, according
to the histologist, the intercellular fibres, along which
impulses are conveyed, connect each brain cell, directly or
indirectly, with every other brain cell in an endless mesh-work,
how is it possible that various sets of cells may at times be
shut off from one another? Such isolation must take place, for
all normal ideation depends for its integrity quite as much upon
the shutting-out of the great mass of associations as upon the
inclusion of certain other associations. For example, a student
in solving a mathematical problem must for the moment become
quite oblivious to the special associations that have to do with
geography, natural history, and the like. But does histology give
any clew to the way in which such isolation may be effected?

Attempts were made to find an answer through consideration of the
very peculiar character of the blood-supply in the brain. Here,
as nowhere else, the terminal twigs of the arteries are arranged
in closed systems, not anastomosing freely with neighboring
systems. Clearly, then, a restricted area of the brain may,
through the controlling influence of the vasomotor nerves, be
flushed with arterial blood while neighboring parts remain
relatively anaemic. And since vital activities unquestionably
depend in part upon the supply of arterial blood, this peculiar
arrangement of the vascular mechanism may very properly be
supposed to aid in the localized activities of the central
nervous ganglia. But this explanation left much to be desired--in
particular when it is recalled that all higher intellection must
in all probability involve multitudes of widely scattered

No better explanation was forthcoming, however, until the year
1889, when of a sudden the mystery was cleared away by a fresh
discovery. Not long before this the Italian histologist Dr.
Camille Golgi had discovered a method of impregnating hardened
brain tissues with a solution of nitrate of silver, with the
result of staining the nerve cells and their processes almost
infinitely better than was possible by the methods of Gerlach, or
by any of the multiform methods that other workers had
introduced. Now for the first time it became possible to trace
the cellular prolongations definitely to their termini, for the
finer fibrils had not been rendered visible by any previous
method of treatment. Golgi himself proved that the set of fibrils
known as protoplasmic prolongations terminate by free
extremities, and have no direct connection with any cell save the
one from which they spring. He showed also that the axis
cylinders give off multitudes of lateral branches not hitherto
suspected. But here he paused, missing the real import of the
discovery of which he was hard on the track. It remained for the
Spanish histologist Dr. S. Ramon y Cajal to follow up the
investigation by means of an improved application of Golgi's
method of staining, and to demonstrate that the axis cylinders,
together with all their collateral branches, though sometimes
extending to a great distance, yet finally terminate, like the
other cell prolongations, in arborescent fibrils having free
extremities. In a word, it was shown that each central nerve
cell, with its fibrillar offshoots, is an isolated entity.
Instead of being in physical connection with a multitude of other
nerve cells, it has no direct physical connection with any other
nerve cell whatever.

When Dr. Cajal announced his discovery, in 1889, his
revolutionary claims not unnaturally amazed the mass of
histologists. There were some few of them, however, who were not
quite unprepared for the revelation; in particular His, who had
half suspected the independence of the cells, because they seemed
to develop from dissociated centres; and Forel, who based a
similar suspicion on the fact that he had never been able
actually to trace a fibre from one cell to another. These
observers then came readily to repeat Cajal's experiments. So
also did the veteran histologist Kolliker, and soon afterwards
all the leaders everywhere. The result was a practically
unanimous confirmation of the Spanish histologist's claims, and
within a few months after his announcements the old theory of
union of nerve cells into an endless mesh-work was completely
discarded, and the theory of isolated nerve elements--the theory
of neurons, as it came to be called--was fully established in its

As to how these isolated nerve cells functionate, Dr. Cajal gave
the clew from the very first, and his explanation has met with
universal approval.

In the modified view, the nerve cell retains its old position as
the storehouse of nervous energy. Each of the filaments jutting
out from the cell is held, as before, to be indeed a transmitter
of impulses, but a transmitter that operates intermittently, like
a telephone wire that is not always "connected," and, like that
wire, the nerve fibril operates by contact and not by continuity.
Under proper stimulation the ends of the fibrils reach out, come
in contact with other end fibrils of other cells, and conduct
their destined impulse. Again they retract, and communication
ceases for the time between those particular cells. Meantime, by
a different arrangement of the various conductors, different sets
of cells are placed in communication, different associations of
nervous impulses induced, different trains of thought engendered.
Each fibril when retracted becomes a non-conductor, but when
extended and in contact with another fibril, or with the body of
another cell, it conducts its message as readily as a continuous
filament could do--precisely as in the case of an electric wire.

This conception, founded on a most tangible anatomical basis,
enables us to answer the question as to how ideas are isolated,
and also, as Dr. Cajal points out, throws new light on many other
mental processes. One can imagine, for example, by keeping in
mind the flexible nerve prolongations, how new trains of thought
may be engendered through novel associations of cells; how
facility of thought or of action in certain directions is
acquired through the habitual making of certain nerve-cell
connections; how certain bits of knowledge may escape our memory
and refuse to be found for a time because of a temporary
incapacity of the nerve cells to make the proper connections, and
so on indefinitely.

If one likens each nerve cell to a central telephone office, each
of its filamentous prolongations to a telephone wire, one can
imagine a striking analogy between the modus operandi of nervous
processes and of the telephone system. The utility of new
connections at the central office, the uselessness of the
mechanism when the connections cannot be made, the "wires in use"
that retard your message, perhaps even the crossing of wires,
bringing you a jangle of sounds far different from what you
desire--all these and a multiplicity of other things that will
suggest themselves to every user of the telephone may be imagined
as being almost ludicrously paralleled in the operations of the
nervous mechanism. And that parallel, startling as it may seem,
is not a mere futile imagining. It is sustained and rendered
plausible by a sound substratum of knowledge of the anatomical
conditions under which the central nervous mechanism exists, and
in default of which, as pathology demonstrates with no less
certitude, its functionings are futile to produce the normal
manifestations of higher intellection.



Conspicuously placed in the great hall of Egyptian antiquities in
the British Museum is a wonderful piece of sculpture known as the
Rosetta Stone. I doubt if any other piece in the entire exhibit
attracts so much attention from the casual visitor as this slab
of black basalt on its telescope-like pedestal. The hall itself,
despite its profusion of strangely sculptured treasures, is never
crowded, but before this stone you may almost always find some
one standing, gazing with more or less of discernment at the
strange characters that are graven neatly across its upturned,
glass-protected face. A glance at this graven surface suffices to
show that three sets of inscriptions are recorded there. The
upper one, occupying about one-fourth of the surface, is a
pictured scroll, made up of chains of those strange outlines of
serpents, hawks, lions, and so on, which are recognized, even by
the least initiated, as hieroglyphics. The middle inscription,
made up of lines, angles, and half-pictures, one might surmise to
be a sort of abbreviated or short-hand hieroglyphic. The third or
lower inscription is Greek--obviously a thing of words. If the
screeds above be also made of words, only the elect have any way
of proving the fact.

Fortunately, however, even the least scholarly observer is left
in no doubt as to the real import of the thing he sees, for an
obliging English label tells us that these three inscriptions are
renderings of the same message, and that this message is a
"decree of the priests of Memphis conferring divine honors on
Ptolemy V. (Epiphenes), King of Egypt, B.C. 195." The label goes
on to state that the upper inscription (of which, unfortunately,
only part of the last dozen lines or so remains, the slab being
broken) is in "the Egyptian language, in hieroglyphics, or
writing of the priests"; the second inscription "in the same
language is in Demotic, or the writing of the people"; and the
third "the Greek language and character." Following this is a
brief biography of the Rosetta Stone itself, as follows: "The
stone was found by the French in 1798 among the ruins of Fort
Saint Julien, near the Rosetta mouth of the Nile. It passed into
the hands of the British by the treaty of Alexandria, and was
deposited in the British Museum in the year 1801." There is a
whole volume of history in that brief inscription--and a bitter
sting thrown in, if the reader chance to be a Frenchman. Yet the
facts involved could scarcely be suggested more modestly. They
are recorded much more bluntly in a graven inscription on the
side of the stone, which reads: "Captured in Egypt by the British
Army, 1801." No Frenchman could read those words without a
veritable sinking of the heart.

The value of the Rosetta Stone depended on the fact that it gave
promise, even when casually inspected, of furnishing a key to the
centuries-old mystery of the hieroglyphics. For two thousand
years the secret of these strange markings had been forgotten.
Nowhere in the world--quite as little in Egypt as elsewhere--had
any man the slightest clew to their meaning; there were those who
even doubted whether these droll picturings really had any
specific meaning, questioning whether they were not rather vague
symbols of esoteric religious import and nothing more. And it was
the Rosetta Stone that gave the answer to these doubters and
restored to the world a lost language and a forgotten literature.

The trustees of the museum recognized at once that the problem of
the Rosetta Stone was one on which the scientists of the world
might well exhaust their ingenuity, and promptly published to the
world a carefully lithographed copy of the entire inscription, so
that foreign scholarship had equal opportunity with the British
to try at the riddle. It was an Englishman, however, who first
gained a clew to the solution. This was none other than the
extraordinary Dr. Thomas Young, the demonstrator of the vibratory
nature of light.

Young's specific discoveries were these: (1) That many of the
pictures of the hieroglyphics stand for the names of the objects
actually delineated; (2) that other pictures are sometimes only
symbolic; (3) that plural numbers are represented by repetition;
(4) that numerals are represented by dashes; (5) that
hieroglyphics may read either from the right or from the left,
but always from the direction in which the animal and human
figures face; (6) that proper names are surrounded by a graven
oval ring, making what he called a cartouche; (7) that the
cartouches of the preserved portion of the Rosetta Stone stand
for the name of Ptolemy alone; (8) that the presence of a female
figure after such cartouches in other inscriptions always denotes
the female sex; (9) that within the cartouches the hieroglyphic
symbols have a positively phonetic value, either alphabetic or
syllabic; and (10) that several different characters may have the
same phonetic value.

Just what these phonetic values are Young pointed out in the case
of fourteen characters representing nine sounds, six of which are
accepted to-day as correctly representing the letters to which he
ascribed them, and the three others as being correct regarding
their essential or consonant element. It is clear, therefore,
that he was on the right track thus far, and on the very verge of
complete discovery. But, unfortunately, he failed to take the
next step, which would have been to realize that the same
phonetic values which were given to the alphabetic characters
within the cartouches were often ascribed to them also when used
in the general text of an inscription; in other words, that the
use of an alphabet was not confined to proper names. This was the
great secret which Young missed and which his French successor,
Jean Francois Champollion, working on the foundation that Young
had laid, was enabled to ferret out.

Young's initial studies of the Rosetta Stone were made in 1814;
his later publication bore date of 1819. Champollion's first
announcement of results came in 1822; his second and more
important one in 1824. By this time, through study of the
cartouches of other inscriptions, Champollion had made out almost
the complete alphabet, and the "riddle of the Sphinx" was
practically solved. He proved that the Egyptians had developed a
relatively complete alphabet (mostly neglecting the vowels, as
early Semitic alphabets did also) centuries before the
Phoenicians were heard of in history. What relation this alphabet
bore to the Phoenician we shall have occasion to ask in another
connection; for the moment it suffices to know that those strange
pictures of the Egyptian scroll are really letters.

Even this statement, however, must be in a measure modified.
These pictures are letters and something more. Some of them are
purely alphabetical in character and some are symbolic in another
way. Some characters represent syllables. Others stand sometimes
as mere representatives of sounds, and again, in a more extended
sense, as representations of things, such as all hieroglyphics
doubtless were in the beginning. In a word, this is an alphabet,
but not a perfected alphabet, such as modern nations are
accustomed to; hence the enormous complications and difficulties
it presented to the early investigators.

Champollion did not live to clear up all these mysteries. His
work was taken up and extended by his pupil Rossellini, and in
particular by Dr. Richard Lepsius in Germany, followed by M.
Bernouf, and by Samuel Birch of the British Museum, and more
recently by such well-known Egyptologists as MM. Maspero and
Mariette and Chabas, in France, Dr. Brugsch, in Germany, and Dr.
E. Wallis Budge, the present head of the Department of Oriental
Antiquities at the British Museum. But the task of later
investigators has been largely one of exhumation and translation
of records rather than of finding methods.


The most casual wanderer in the British Museum can hardly fail to
notice two pairs of massive sculptures, in the one case winged
bulls, in the other winged lions, both human-headed, which guard
the entrance to the Egyptian hall, close to the Rosetta Stone.
Each pair of these weird creatures once guarded an entrance to
the palace of a king in the famous city of Nineveh. As one
stands before them his mind is carried back over some
twenty-seven intervening centuries, to the days when the "Cedar
of Lebanon" was "fair in his greatness" and the scourge of

The very Sculptures before us, for example, were perhaps seen by
Jonah when he made that famous voyage to Nineveh some seven or
eight hundred years B.C. A little later the Babylonian and the
Mede revolted against Assyrian tyranny and descended upon the
fair city of Nineveh, and almost literally levelled it to the
ground. But these great sculptures, among other things, escaped
destruction, and at once hidden and preserved by the accumulating
debris of the centuries, they stood there age after age, their
very existence quite forgotten. When Xenophon marched past their
site with the ill-starred expedition of the ten thousand, in the
year 400 B.C., he saw only a mound which seemed to mark the site
of some ancient ruin; but the Greek did not suspect that he
looked upon the site of that city which only two centuries before
had been the mistress of the world.

So ephemeral is fame! And yet the moral scarcely holds in the
sequel; for we of to-day, in this new, undreamed-of Western
world, behold these mementos of Assyrian greatness fresh from
their twenty-five hundred years of entombment, and with them
records which restore to us the history of that long-forgotten
people in such detail as it was not known to any previous
generation since the fall of Nineveh. For two thousand five
hundred years no one saw these treasures or knew that they
existed. One hundred generations of men came and went without
once pronouncing the name of kings Shalmaneser or Asumazirpal or
Asurbanipal. And to-day, after these centuries of oblivion,
these names are restored to history, and, thanks to the character
of their monuments, are assured a permanency of fame that can
almost defy time itself. It would be nothing strange, but rather
in keeping with their previous mutations of fortune, if the names
of Asurnazirpal and Asurbanipal should be familiar as household
words to future generations that have forgotten the existence of
an Alexander, a Caesar, and a Napoleon. For when Macaulay's
prospective New Zealander explores the ruins of the British
Museum the records of the ancient Assyrians will presumably still
be there unscathed, to tell their story as they have told it to
our generation, though every manuscript and printed book may have
gone the way of fragile textures.

But the past of the Assyrian sculptures is quite necromantic
enough without conjuring for them a necromantic future. The story
of their restoration is like a brilliant romance of history.
Prior to the middle of this century the inquiring student could
learn in an hour or so all that was known in fact and in fable of
the renowned city of Nineveh. He had but to read a few chapters
of the Bible and a few pages of Diodorus to exhaust the important
literature on the subject. If he turned also to the pages of
Herodotus and Xenophon, of Justin and Aelian, these served
chiefly to confirm the suspicion that the Greeks themselves knew
almost nothing more of the history of their famed Oriental
forerunners. The current fables told of a first King Ninus and
his wonderful queen Semiramis; of Sennacherib the conqueror; of
the effeminate Sardanapalus, who neglected the warlike ways of
his ancestors but perished gloriously at the last, with Nineveh
itself, in a self-imposed holocaust. And that was all. How much
of this was history, how much myth, no man could say; and for all
any one suspected to the contrary, no man could ever know. And
to-day the contemporary records of the city are before us in such
profusion as no other nation of antiquity, save Egypt alone, can
at all rival. Whole libraries of Assyrian books are at hand that
were written in the seventh century before our era. These, be it
understood, are the original books themselves, not copies. The
author of that remote time appeals to us directly, hand to eye,
without intermediary transcriber. And there is not a line of any
Hebrew or Greek manuscript of a like age that has been preserved
to us; there is little enough that can match these ancient books
by a thousand years. When one reads Moses or Isaiah, Homer,
Hesiod, or Herodotus, he is but following the
transcription--often unquestionably faulty and probably never in
all parts perfect--of successive copyists of later generations.
The oldest known copy of the Bible, for example, dates probably
from the fourth century A.D., a thousand years or more after the
last Assyrian records were made and read and buried and

There was at least one king of Assyria--namely, Asurbanipal,
whose palace boasted a library of some ten thousand volumes--a
library, if you please, in which the books were numbered and
shelved systematically, and classified and cared for by an
official librarian. If you would see some of the documents of
this marvellous library you have but to step past the winged
lions of Asurnazirpal and enter the Assyrian hall just around the
corner from the Rosetta Stone. Indeed, the great slabs of stone
from which the lions themselves are carved are in a sense books,
inasmuch as there are written records inscribed on their surface.
A glance reveals the strange characters in which these records
are written, graven neatly in straight lines across the stone,
and looking to casual inspection like nothing so much as random
flights of arrow-heads. The resemblance is so striking that this
is sometimes called the arrow-head character, though it is more
generally known as the wedge or cuneiform character. The
inscriptions on the flanks of the lions are, however, only
makeshift books. But the veritable books are no farther away
than the next room beyond the hall of Asurnazirpal. They occupy
part of a series of cases placed down the centre of this room.
Perhaps it is not too much to speak of this collection as the
most extraordinary set of documents of all the rare treasures of
the British Museum, for it includes not books alone, but public
and private letters, business announcements, marriage
contracts--in a word, all the species of written records that
enter into the every-day life of an intelligent and cultured

But by what miracle have such documents been preserved through
all these centuries? A glance makes the secret evident. It is
simply a case of time-defying materials. Each one of these
Assyrian documents appears to be, and in reality is, nothing more
or less than an inscribed fragment of brick, having much the
color and texture of a weathered terra-cotta tile of modern
manufacture. These slabs are usually oval or oblong in shape,
and from two or three to six or eight inches in length and an
inch or so in thickness. Each of them was originally a portion
of brick-clay, on which the scribe indented the flights of
arrowheads with some sharp-cornered instrument, after which the
document was made permanent by baking. They are somewhat fragile,
of course, as all bricks are, and many of them have been more or
less crumbled in the destruction of the palace at Nineveh; but to
the ravages of mere time they are as nearly invulnerable as
almost anything in nature. Hence it is that these records of a
remote civilization have been preserved to us, while the similar
records of such later civilizations as the Grecian have utterly
perished, much as the flint implements of the cave-dweller come
to us unchanged, while the iron implements of a far more recent
age have crumbled away.


After all, then, granted the choice of materials, there is
nothing so very extraordinary in the mere fact of preservation of
these ancient records. To be sure, it is vastly to the credit of
nineteenth-century enterprise to have searched them out and
brought them back to light. But the real marvel in connection
with them is the fact that nineteenth-century scholarship should
have given us, not the material documents themselves, but a
knowledge of their actual contents. The flight of arrow-heads on
wall or slab or tiny brick have surely a meaning; but how shall
we guess that meaning? These must be words; but what words? The
hieroglyphics of the Egyptians were mysterious enough in all
conscience; yet, after all, their symbols have a certain
suggestiveness, whereas there is nothing that seems to promise a
mental leverage in the unbroken succession of these cuneiform
dashes. Yet the Assyrian scholar of to-day can interpret these
strange records almost as readily and as surely as the classical
scholar interprets a Greek manuscript. And this evidences one of
the greatest triumphs of nineteenth-century scholarship, for
within almost two thousand years no man has lived, prior to our
century, to whom these strange inscriptions would not have been
as meaningless as they are to the most casual stroller who looks
on them with vague wonderment here in the museum to-day. For the
Assyrian language, like the Egyptian, was veritably a dead
language; not, like Greek and Latin, merely passed from practical
every-day use to the closet of the scholar, but utterly and
absolutely forgotten by all the world. Such being the case, it is
nothing less than marvellous that it should have been restored.

It is but fair to add that this restoration probably never would
have been effected, with Assyrian or with Egyptian, had the
language in dying left no cognate successor; for the powers of
modern linguistry, though great, are not actually miraculous.
But, fortunately, a language once developed is not blotted out in
toto; it merely outlives its usefulness and is gradually
supplanted, its successor retaining many traces of its origin.
So, just as Latin, for example, has its living representatives in
Italian and the other Romance tongues, the language of Assyria is
represented by cognate Semitic languages. As it chances, however,
these have been of aid rather in the later stages of Assyrian
study than at the very outset; and the first clew to the message
of the cuneiform writing came through a slightly different

Curiously enough, it was a trilingual inscription that gave the
clew, as in the case of the Rosetta Stone, though with very
striking difference withal. The trilingual inscription now in
question, instead of being a small, portable monument, covers the
surface of a massive bluff at Behistun in western Persia.
Moreover, all three of its inscriptions are in cuneiform
characters, and all three are in languages that at the beginning
of our century were absolutely unknown. This inscription itself,
as a striking monument of unknown import, had been seen by
successive generations. Tradition ascribed it, as we learn from
Ctesias, through Diodorus, to the fabled Assyrian queen
Semiramis. Tradition was quite at fault in this; but it is only
recently that knowledge has availed to set it right. The
inscription, as is now known, was really written about the year
515 B.C., at the instance of Darius I., King of Persia, some of
whose deeds it recounts in the three chief languages of his
widely scattered subjects.

The man who at actual risk of life and limb copied this wonderful
inscription, and through interpreting it became the veritable
"father of Assyriology," was the English general Sir Henry
Rawlinson. His feat was another British triumph over the same
rivals who had competed for the Rosetta Stone; for some French
explorers had been sent by their government, some years earlier,
expressly to copy this strange record, and had reported that it
was impossible to reach the inscription. But British courage did
not find it so, and in 1835 Rawlinson scaled the dangerous height
and made a paper cast of about half the inscription. Diplomatic
duties called him away from the task for some years, but in 1848
he returned to it and completed the copy of all parts of the
inscription that have escaped the ravages of time. And now the
material was in hand for a new science, which General Rawlinson
himself soon, assisted by a host of others, proceeded to

The key to the value of this unique inscription lies in the fact
that its third language is ancient Persian. It appears that the
ancient Persians had adopted the cuneiform character from their
western neighbors, the Assyrians, but in so doing had made one of
those essential modifications and improvements which are scarcely
possible to accomplish except in the transition from one race to
another. Instead of building with the arrow-head a multitude of
syllabic characters, including many homophones, as had been and
continued to be the custom with the Assyrians, the Persians
selected a few of these characters and ascribed to them phonetic
values that were almost purely alphabetic. In a word, while
retaining the wedge as the basal stroke of their script, they
developed an alphabet, making the last wonderful analysis of
phonetic sounds which even to this day has escaped the Chinese,
which the Egyptians had only partially effected, and which the
Phoenicians were accredited by the Greeks with having introduced
to the Western world. In addition to this all-essential step, the
Persians had introduced the minor but highly convenient custom of
separating the words of a sentence from one another by a
particular mark, differing in this regard not only from the
Assyrians and Egyptians, but from the early Greek scribes as

Thanks to these simplifications, the old Persian language had
been practically restored about the beginning of the nineteenth
century, through the efforts of the German Grotefend, and further
advances in it were made just at this time by Renouf, in France,
and by Lassen, in Germany, as well as by Rawlinson himself, who
largely solved the problem of the Persian alphabet independently.
So the Persian portion of the Behistun inscription could be at
least partially deciphered. This in itself, however, would have
been no very great aid towards the restoration of the languages
of the other portions had it not chanced, fortunately, that the
inscription is sprinkled with proper names. Now proper names,
generally speaking, are not translated from one language to
another, but transliterated as nearly as the genius of the
language will permit. It was the fact that the Greek word
Ptolemaics was transliterated on the Rosetta Stone that gave the
first clew to the sounds of the Egyptian characters. Had the
upper part of the Rosetta Stone been preserved, on which,
originally, there were several other names, Young would not have
halted where he did in his decipherment.

But fortune, which had been at once so kind and so tantalizing in
the case of the Rosetta Stone, had dealt more gently with the
Behistun inscriptions; for no fewer than ninety proper names were
preserved in the Persian portion and duplicated, in another
character, in the Assyrian inscription. A study of these gave a
clew to the sounds of the Assyrian characters. The decipherment
of this character, however, even with this aid, proved enormously
difficult, for it was soon evident that here it was no longer a
question of a nearly perfect alphabet of a few characters, but of
a syllabary of several hundred characters, including many
homophones, or different forms for representing the same sound.
But with the Persian translation for a guide on the one hand, and
the Semitic languages, to which family the Assyrian belonged, on
the other, the appalling task was gradually accomplished, the
leading investigators being General Rawlinson, Professor Hincks,
and Mr. Fox-Talbot, in England, Professor Jules Oppert, in Paris,
and Professor Julian Schrader, in Germany, though a host of other
scholars soon entered the field.

This great linguistic feat was accomplished about the middle of
the nineteenth century. But so great a feat was it that many
scholars of the highest standing, including Joseph Erneste Renan,
in France, and Sir G. Cornewall Lewis, in England, declined at
first to accept the results, contending that the Assyriologists
had merely deceived themselves by creating an arbitrary language.
The matter was put to a test in 1855 at the suggestion of Mr.
Fox-Talbot, when four scholars, one being Mr. Talbot himself and
the others General Rawlinson, Professor Hincks, and Professor
Oppert, laid before the Royal Asiatic Society their independent
interpretations of a hitherto untranslated Assyrian text. A
committee of the society, including England's greatest historian
of the century, George Grote, broke the seals of the four
translations, and reported that they found them unequivocally in
accord as regards their main purport, and even surprisingly
uniform as regards the phraseology of certain passages--in short,
as closely similar as translations from the obscure texts of any
difficult language ever are. This decision gave the work of the
Assyriologists official status, and the reliability of their
method has never since been in question. Henceforth Assyriology
was an established science.




[1] Robert Boyle, Philosophical Works (3 vols.). London, 1738.


[1] For a complete account of the controversy called the "Water
Controversy," see The Life of the Hon. Henry Cavendish, by George
Wilson, M.D., F.R.S.E. London, 1850.

[2] Henry Cavendish, in Phil. Trans. for 1784, P. 119.

[3] Lives of the Philosophers of the Time of George III., by
Henry, Lord Brougham, F.R.S., p. 106. London, 1855.

[4] Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air, by
Joseph Priestley (3 vols.). Birmingham, 790, vol. II, pp.

[5] Lectures on Experimental Philosophy, by Joseph Priestley,
lecture IV., pp. 18, ig. J. Johnson, London, 1794.

[6] Translated from Scheele's Om Brunsten, eller Magnesia, och
dess Egenakaper. Stockholm, 1774, and published as Alembic Club
Reprints, No. 13, 1897, p. 6.

[7] According to some writers this was discovered by Berzelius.

[8] Histoire de la Chimie, par Ferdinand Hoefer. Paris, 1869,
Vol. CL, p. 289.

[9] Elements of Chemistry, by Anton Laurent Lavoisier, translated
by Robert Kerr, p. 8. London and Edinburgh, 1790.

[10] Ibid., pp. 414-416.


[1] Sir Humphry Davy, in Phil. Trans., Vol. VIII.


[1] Baas, History of Medicine, p. 692.

[2] Based on Thomas H. Huxley's Presidential Address to the
British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1870.

[3] Essays on Digestion, by James Carson. London, 1834, p. 6.

[4] Ibid., p. 7.

[5] John Hunter, On the Digestion of the Stomach after Death,
first edition, pp. 183-188.

[6] Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden, pp. 448-453. London,


[1] Baron de Cuvier's Theory of the Earth. New York, 1818, p.

[2] On the Organs and Mode of Fecundation of Orchidex and
Asclepiadea, by Robert Brown, Esq., in Miscellaneous Botanical
Works. London, 1866, Vol. I., pp. 511-514.

[3] Justin Liebig, Animal Chemistry. London, 1843, p. 17f.


[1] "Essay on the Metamorphoses of Plants," by Goethe, translated
for the present work from Grundriss einer Geschichte der
Naturwissenschaften, by Friederich Dannemann (2 vols.). Leipzig,
1896, Vol. I., p. 194.

[2] The Temple of Nature, or The Origin of Society, by Erasmus
Darwin, edition published in 1807, p. 35.

[3] Baron de Cuvier, Theory of the Earth. New York, 1818, p.74.
(This was the introduction to Cuvier's great work.)

[4] Robert Chambers, Explanations: a sequel to Vestiges of
Creation. London, Churchill, 1845, pp. 148-153.


[1] Condensed from Dr. Boerhaave's Academical Lectures on the
Theory of Physic. London, 1751, pp. 77, 78. Boerhaave's lectures
were published as Aphorismi de cognoscendis et curandis Morbis,
Leyden, 1709. On this book Van Swieten wrote commentaries filling
five volumes. Another very celebrated work of Boerhaave is his
Institutiones et Experimenta Chemic, Paris, 1724, the germs of
this being given as a lecture on his appointment to the chair of
chemistry in the University of Leyden in 1718.

[2] An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variola
Vaccine, etc., by Edward Jenner, M.D., F.R.S., etc. London, 1799,
pp. 2-7. He wrote several other papers, most of which were
communications to the Royal Society. His last publication was, On
the Influence of Artificial Eruptions in Certain Diseases
(London, 1822), a subject to which he had given much time and


[1] In the introduction to Corvisart's translation of
Avenbrugger's work. Paris, 1808.

[2] Laennec, Traite d'Auscultation Mediate. Paris, 1819. This was
Laennec's chief work, and was soon translated into several
different languages. Before publishing this he had written also,
Propositions sur la doctrine midicale d'Hippocrate, Paris, 1804,
and Memoires sur les vers visiculaires, in the same year.

[3] Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly concerning
Nitrous Oxide or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air and its
Respiration, by Humphry Davy. London, 1800, pp. 479-556.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For accounts of the discovery of anaesthesia, see Report of
the Board of Trustees of the Massachusetts General Hospital,
Boston, 1888. Also, The Ether Controversy: Vindication of the
Hospital Reports of 1848, by N. L Bowditch, Boston, 1848. An
excellent account is given in Littell's Living Age, for March,
1848, written by R. H. Dana, Jr. There are also two Congressional
Reports on the question of the discovery of etherization, one for
1848, the other for 11852.

[6] Simpson made public this discovery of the anaesthetic
properties of chloroform in a paper read before the
Medico-Chirurgical Society of Edinburgh, in March, 1847, about
three months after he had first seen a surgical operation
performed upon a patient to whom ether had been administered.

[7] Louis Pasteur, Studies on Fermentation. London, 1870.

[8] Louis Pasteur, in Comptes Rendus des Sciences de L'Academie
des Sciences, vol. XCII., 1881, pp. 429-435.


[1] Bell's communications were made to the Royal Society, but his
studies and his discoveries in the field of anatomy of the
nervous system were collected and published, in 1824, as An
Exposition of the Natural System of Nerves of the Human Body:
being a Republication of the Papers delivered to the Royal
Society on the Subject of the Nerves.

[2] Marshall Hall, M.D., F.R.S.L., On the Reflex Functions of the
Medulla Oblongata and the Medulla Spinalis, in Phil. Trans. of
Royal Soc., vol. XXXIII., 1833.

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