The Disputed Discovery of Facial and Trigeminal Nerve Function: Revisiting the Contributions of Herbert Mayo and Charles Bell

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Background:The first description of the voluntary motor function of the facial nerve and separate sensory-motor contributions of the trigeminal nerve is most commonly attributed to Charles Bell. However, a review of the original scientific accounts and subsequent historical publications question the validity of this credit. The objective of the present historical analysis is to clarify the contributions of Herbert Mayo toward discovering the functions of the fifth and seventh cranial nerves and to raise awareness of this historical controversy within the medical literature.Methods:Review of Charles Bell's and Herbert Mayo's original dissertations published between 1821 and 1823, and subsequent reports relevant to these primary works.Results:Bell's submissions to the Royal Society of London in 1821 and 1822 describe the seventh nerve as the “respiratory nerve of the face” responsible for involuntary coordination of facial movement with the organs of respiration. Separately, Bell states that the fifth nerve is responsible for sensibility and voluntary movement of the facial muscles. In these accounts, Bell only peripherally alludes to the motor function of the seventh nerve and often comments inaccurately on fifth and seventh cranial nerve innervation. In contrast, in 1822 and 1823, Herbert Mayo first accurately and unequivocally defined the voluntary motor function of the facial nerve and sensory-motor function of the trigeminal nerve on the basis of his detailed experiments. The ultimate transfer of acknowledgment to Bell was rooted in surreptitious reworking of Bell's original dissertations and personal attacks against Mayo rather than arguments of scientific merit.Conclusion:Several notable clinicians and anatomists have contributed to our current understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the facial and trigeminal nerves, including Charles Bell; however, Herbert Mayo should be remembered for first providing a more accurate and clear description of their separate functions.

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