In 1896, Emile Zola donated his brain to science. This was no posthumous bequest, destined for dissection by medical students. Zola was very much alive at the time. The novelist laid open his “glass cranium”, he said, so the physical and psychological nature of a writer could be investigated.
For almost a year Zola was scrutinised by young French psychiatrist Édouard Toulouse and a team of crack medical men. Toulouse applied methods usually forced on asylum patients to a man he considered intellectually above the norm.
The study explored Zola’s medical history, vital signs, memory and vocabulary. One expert debated the likely source of Zola’s facial wrinkles, while another collected the writer’s attitudes towards women. Zola’s work habits were assessed, as was the organisation of his workspace. Some investigators used the relatively new technology of photography to capture and communicate information about the writer.