FEATURE STORY — Spring 2012

Brain Man

Dr. Percival Bailey was perhaps the closest to a renaissance man U.S. medicine ever knew. A startling exhibit demonstrates why



By John Gregerson
Photography by Jeff Dahlgren

Brain specimen

Housed in UIC’s Library of the Health Sciences, the exhibit, “Mr. Neurology’s Legacy: Selected Specimens from the Neuropathology Collection of Dr. Percival Bailey,” features an extensive collection of rare and historic brain specimens.

He was a neurosurgeon, physiologist and psychiatrist.

Like Sigmund Freud, Dr. Percival Bailey concerned himself with matters of the brain—the difference being that while Bailey emerged as an “ardent attacker” of all things Freudian, revisionism has yet to tarnish Bailey’s standing as one of the preeminent practitioners of his time, or any other.

Among other achievements, Bailey, who spent much of his career at the University of Illinois Neuropsychiatric Institute, where he co-founded its neurology and neurosurgery section, is remembered for his groundbreaking classifications of brain tumors. Because each of his groupings shared a similar pathology, physicians were not only better able to render a prognosis, but prescribe treatment as well.

The impact, say practitioners, was immediate and profound. “There isn’t a neuropathologist alive who doesn’t know the name Percival Bailey,” says Dr. Tibor Valyi-Nagy, UIC associate professor and director of neuropathology, Department of Pathology, College of Medicine. “His classifications remain relevant to this day.”

So, too, do his tissue specimens—oddly, compellingly on display at UIC’s Library of the Health Sciences. In all, some 89 samples are available for public viewing, including tumors, infections, traumas, vascular ailments, neurodegenerative diseases and other disorders of the brain.

“As educational tools, they still hold tremendous value,” says Tibor Valyi-Nagy, UIC associate professor.

Bailey, who died in 1973 at age 81, preserved the specimens himself, though no one is certain how. Whatever his method, it worked. Encased in simple plastic, or something like it, the specimens—like Bailey’s work—have withstood the rigors of time. Hundreds more are in storage.

“As educational tools, they still hold tremendous value,” says Valyi-Nagy.

Valyi-Nagy, who helped organize “Mr. Neurology’s Legacy: Selected Specimens From the Neuropathology Collection of Dr. Percival Bailey,” says his daughter Zsofia spent much of the summer of 2010 photo-cataloging specimen after specimen, the intent being to keep them in circulation long after exhibit lights had dimmed.

“Our hope is to release the catalog electronically,” says UIC archivist Peggy Glowacki ’89 las, ms ’96 las, ms ’11 uiuc, who says the exhibit reflects a UIC initiative to “showcase more diverse and interesting displays.”

“Dr. Neurology” succeeds on both counts. “I had to pass through the creepiness of it before I began to experience a sense of awe,” says Glowacki, who designed the exhibit. “This is who we are,” she says of the specimens. “It’s what we’re born with, what it is that makes us human.”

The exhibit is the initiative of Dr. James Stone, res ’84, a visiting clinical professor, neurologist and neurological surgeon at UIC, who hopes to one day chronicle the University’s neurological endeavors, including Bailey’s contributions as “the foremost neuropathologist of his time.”

Dr. Percival Bailey

Dr. Percival Bailey is best known for his groundbreaking classifications of brain tumors.

A distaste for Freud and more
Stone has quite a tale to tell. Like all good stories, this one begins simply, among “the barren clay hills of southern Illinois,” according to a memoir by neurosurgeon and Bailey collaborator Paul C. Bucy.

Bailey’s ambitions were as modest as his origins. He attended Southern Illinois Teachers College and wanted to be a “country schoolteacher.” One of his college instructors, who taught grammar and etymology, saw something more. So it was that Bailey transferred to the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1918, the same year he earned an M.D. from Northwestern University in Evanston.

“What’s incredible is that he was so well-trained in morphology, histology and anatomy,” says Valyi-Nagy. “In that sense, he was proficient in all of the basics.”

“Apparently, he was not particularly concerned whether his activities were in neurology, psychiatry or neurosurgery,” writes Ferguson S. Lesniak in his paper, “Percival Bailey and the Classification of Brain Tumors,” published in 2005. “He wrote two letters, one to Adolf Meyer, a prominent psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins, and the other to Harvey Cushing in Boston, who was already recognized as a brilliant neurological surgeon. As fate would have it, Dr. Cushing replied first.” His arrival at Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now known as the Brigham and Women’s Hospital) in 1918 marked the beginning of a 10-year collaboration.

Where science created clutter, the two created order. Their 1926 book, A Classification of the Tumors of the Glioma Group, the basis for modern neuro-oncology, resulted from extensive studies of tumors known as gliomas, whose classifications the two researchers found “inadequate and confusing,” according to Lesniak. By examining hundreds of tumors and patient records from diagnosis to death, the two came to recognize the basis for structure variability among gliomas, as well as the clinical implications for these histological differences.

“In all,” writes Lesniak, “Bailey exhaustively examined and classified...414 cases of glioma...and performed histological studies for 254 of these. Based on the predominant cellular configuration, Bailey classified these tumors in 13 categories.”

A year later, in 1927, he consolidated the categories to 10. By then, says Valyi-Nagy, “Bailey was the best known tumor expert in the United States.”

Bailey was still a young man, only 35 years old, and in time, he returned to the University of Chicago, where he was appointed head of the neurosurgery section in 1929. A decade later, he was named professor of neurology and neurological study at the University of Illinois. Where his interests led, Bailey followed. For a time, beginning in 1951, he served as director of the Illinois Psychiatric Institute.

True to his aspirations, Bailey proved an exceptional teacher. He trained William H. Sweet, who became head of neurosurgery at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., as well as Bucy, who was later head of neurosurgery at Northwestern.

There were accolades and awards. “He achieved international renown,” says Kevin O’Brien, UIC special collections librarian. “He spoke French and received honorary degrees from several European universities.”

There also were disappointments. A neuroscience institute he envisioned failed to materialize, prompting Bailey to leave the University of Chicago in 1939. Although his lectures and books about Freud didn’t “abolish [Freud’s] baneful influence on psychiatry, literature and thought, it is fair to say that Bailey’s efforts...were a major force in diverting psychiatric thinking back into scientific channels,” Bucy wrote. Nevertheless, “Bailey was unhappy with what he had been able to do in psychiatry, just as he was unhappy with his efforts to bring neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neurochemistry, neuropathology, medical neurology and neurological surgery into one discipline in our universities.”

Bailey didn’t suffer fools—or frauds. “On one occasion,” Bucy recalls, “I was in his office when he was reading a scientific article in which a distinguished neuroanatomist described intracellular inclusions he was attempting to correlate with certain functional activities. A puzzled look came over Bailey’s face and he reached in his desk for a magnifying glass to examine the photomicrograph carefully. Finally, he straightened up and said, ‘The photomicrograph has been retouched.’ So far as I know, he never saw him, spoke to him or corresponded with him again.”

Bailey did, however, write volumes. He also collected them. Prior to the UIC exhibit, “he was known to us as an archivist because of the vast collection of rare books he left us,” says O’Brien. “Most of them concern neurology and many are European in origin. There are literally hundreds of titles, all very valuable.”

Eighty-nine preserved brain specimens are displayed

Eighty-nine preserved brain specimens are displayed, including tumors, infections, traumas, vascular ailments, neurodegenerative diseases and other disorders of the brain.

Buried in the basement
Bailey’s tissue specimens, by comparison, were relegated to the basement of UIC’s Neuro­psychiatric Institute. “I’d find myself thinking about them from time to time,” recalls Stone. “I remembered them from my training in the 1970s, when they were used as teaching aids. They were on display, adjacent to where Bailey’s office had been. Later, when the Institute building was renovated in 1994, they disappeared. One day, I decided to go look for them.”

He didn’t find them immediately. “It took two or three years to locate them all,” says Stone, who eventually returned the collection to the sixth floor, where it originally resided.

“For awhile, some of the specimens were displayed in private areas, such as the corridors of the Neurosurgery Department, where faculty could view them,” says Valyi-Nagy, “but the ‘Mr. Neurology’ exhibit marks the first time they’ve been made available to the public.”

In all, says O’Brien, it took six months to mount the exhibit. While Stone wrote accompanying text, Valyi-Nagy assisted O’Brien and Glowacki in classifying the specimens, as well as translating words and terms into modern vernacular.

A few of the specimens were set aside as a result of degradation.

What remains, says Valyi-Nagy, is historic. “It’s a unique and instructive collection. There’s nothing else like it.”

Or almost nothing. In an interesting postscript, Stone traveled in 2011 to a conference at the University of California-Los Angeles Brain Research Institute in Westwood, where he discovered a collection of tissue specimens strikingly similar to Bailey’s. He learned they were the work of distinguished neurosurgeon and Brain Institute co-founder John Douglas French, who collected and preserved the specimens during the early 1950s.

There was more than coincidence at hand. French, as it happens, spent much of 1947 at the University of Illinois Neuro­­psychiatric Institute studying neurophysiology in a program headed by Dr. Percival Bailey.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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