Papers of: Head, Sir Henry (1861-1940)

Scope and Content

The papers cover some aspects of Head's life in detail, but there are few records of his major achievements in medicine. The records of his work (Section B) are mainly the texts of lectures and papers, but there are some case notes: B2/1 is a volume of reports on the examination of pilgrims to Lourdes which Head undertook in 1895 with the help of George Bull, an English Roman Catholic doctor from Paris; and B3 is a volume of post mortem reports on cases of shingles, which affects the same areas as visceral disease, representing, as Head discovered, the distribution of either a single nerve root or of a single segment of the spinal cord, now known as 'Head's areas'.

The photographs of Head's arm (B9) probably date from his 1905 work on the effects of severing the nerves in his own arm, and several of the papers and cuttings in Sections A4 and B18 comment upon the experiment.

In Section A is the text of an autobiography which Head dictated at some time during his last years, but apparently never completed. It covers only his childhood, schooldays at Charterhouse, his residence in Halle in 1880, his undergraduate days at Trinity College, Cambridge, and his work on the physiology of respiration with Ewald Hering at the German University in Prague from 1884 to 1886. Head's letters to his mother [Hester] (D2) give many more details of the same period, the letters from Halle including diary entries.

Head's and his wife's shared interest in art, architecture, music, literature and drama is recorded in their diaries and scrap books (Section E), and much of their correspondence (D4). Lady Head wrote novels and it is probable that the prose works in Section F are hers.

The restricted life which he and Lady Head lived after his retirement is vividly illustrated in the correspondence between Lady Head and Hester Marsden-Smedley (D6).

Administrative / Biographical History

Head was born in 1861, and attended Charterhouse school in Godalming. He spent 1880 in Halle, Germany, learning German and attending lectures at the University on physiology and histology. After graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1884, he worked on the physiology of respiration with Ewald Hering at the German University in Prague from 1884 to 1886.

In 1896 Head met Ruth Mayhew, an assistant mistress at Oxford High School who became headmistress of Brighton High School for Girls in 1899. They were soon writing to each other at least once every week, and married on 28th April 1904. Their home was a meeting place of talents, artistic as well as scientific, and their friends included Thomas Hardy, Siegfried Sassoon and Stephen Tennant. Head wrote poetry, and in their correspondence, he and Lady Head discuss his ideas and their expression.

The work for which Head became widely known to the general public was his study with W H R Rivers in 1905 of the effects of severing the nerves in his own arm.

Head suffered for the last twenty years of his life from Parkinson's disease, which gradually disabled him. Although his mind remained active, even to the extent of recording the effects of the disease on his own body, he was forced to give up most of his activities. He published his seminal work on aphasia in 1926, but had already retired from his active work as Editor of Brain and as consulting physician at the London Hospital. Thereafter, he and Lady Head lived first at Dorchester and then, after the death of Thomas Hardy, at Hartley Court, near Reading. Lady Head died in September 1939, and Sir Henry in October 1940.

Further biographical details can be found in the Dictionary of National Biography , in Sir Russell Brain's Doctors past and present (Pitman Medical, 1964), and in obituaries in the British Medical Journal , the Lancet and Brain . R A Henson's biographical work was edited after his death by W I Macdonald and was published in the Journal of Medical Biography , 1998; 6: 15-20.

Career summary:
Born 4 August 1861; 1875-1880 Charterhouse School, Godalming; Mar-Aug 1880 Halle, Germany; 1880-1884 Trinity College, Cambridge: BA 1884; Sep 1884-1886 The German University, Prague; Completed courses in anatomy and physiology at Cambridge: MA 1886; Clinical study at University College Hospital: qualified MB 1890; MD 1892; MRCS, LRCP 1890; House physician, University College Hospital; House physician, Victoria Park Hospital for Diseases of the Chest; 1894 Clinical Assistant, County Asylum, Rainhill, Prescot, Lancashire; 1896 Registrar, then Assistant Physician, London Hospital, Whitechapel; 1913 Physician; 1919 Consulting Physician; 1894 MRCP; 1900 FRCP; 1899 FRS; 1908 Awarded the Royal Medal; 1910-1925 Editor of Brain ; 1927 Knighted; Died 8 Oct 1940


By section as follows: A Biographical; B Records of Head's work; C Reprints and publications; D Correspondence; E Scrap books and diaries; F Literary works; G Portraits.

Access Information

The papers are available subject to the usual conditions of access to Archives and Manuscripts material, by prior appointment with Archives and Manuscripts staff and after the completion of a Reader's Undertaking.

Acquisition Information

These records were placed in the Wellcome Library by Head's great niece, Mrs Henrietta Williamson, in five separate deposits between July 1985 and April 1989 (Acc Nos 213, 240, 265, 286, 306). After R A Henson's death in 1994, further material was found among his papers and deposited via his widow, namely a photograph of Head and W H R Rivers (in B.9), and a large number of letters, which have been integrated with those already in D.4/1-6 (Acc No 600).

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued by Shirley Dixon, Wellcome Library, November 1990 and October 1996. Hard-copy catalogue available in Wellcome Library.

Archivist's Note

Description compiled by Helen Wakely based on typescript catalogue to the collection by Shirley Dixon.

Separated Material

Material held elsewhere: The records of Head's 1905 experimentation on his arm nerves survive in the library of the Department of Experimental Psychology in the University of Cambridge, and are available for study by appointment with the librarian. The London Hospital, Whitechapel (now the Royal London Hospital) retains its own administrative, financial and patient records and ephemera including Bulloch's biographies of members of staff and Donald Hunter's collection of oral reminiscences, both of which mention Head, and the minutes of the hospital's Medical Society, 1903-1907, when Head was president. These can be consulted by appointment with the Royal London Hospital archivist.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies/photographs/microfilm are supplied for private research only at the Archivist's discretion. Please note that material may be unsuitable for copying on conservation grounds, and that photographs cannot be photocopied in any circumstances. Readers are restricted to 100 photocopies in twelve months. Researchers who wish to publish material must seek copyright permission from the copyright owner.

Custodial History

The majority of the papers were kept after Head's death by his sister, Lady Pinney, and by her daughter, Mrs Hester Marsden-Smedley, but there are also some ephemeral records of Head's research, some of which may have survived at the London Hospital. R A Henson had partially sorted the correspondence and scrap books of Head and Lady Head with a view to writing a biography.

Related Material

Material held by Archives and Manuscripts, Wellcome Library: for further material on neurology see the papers of Sir Charles Putnam Symonds (PP/CPS); Frederick Parkes Weber (PP/FPW); Henry McIlwain (PP/MCI); the Brain Research Association (SA/BRA); Thomas Rowland Hill (GC/2); Napsbury Mental Hospital, St Albans (GC/135); Derek Richter (GC/175); John AV Bates and the 'Ratio Club' (GC/179); Tait/Reichstein correspondence (GC/224); and Jack M Small (GC/229).