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Darwin Correspondence Project

From James Crichton-Browne   16 April 1871

West Riding Asylum, | Wakefield.

16th. April 1871.

My dear Sir

By tonights post I send you some terribly disjointed and ill expressed notes on blushing, but of them however you may be able to pick some useful facts. For all my statements not expressly stated to depend on my own observations, I can give you authorities, and thoroughly reliable ones. Would you like more information on the physiology and pathology of blushing and would you take in a fragmentary shape? My observations and memoranda on the subject are scattered through various note books, but can easily be copied out if you think they might be of service to you.

I shall be delighted to help you by looking over any M.S. or proof. Command my services in any way.

& Believe me, | With profound respect | Yours most faithfully | J. Crichton Browne

I sent you a curious Photo of 7 Imbeciles in one family the other day.1 J.C.B.

Charles Darwin. Esq.


After reading the paper forwarded I have no hesitation in saying that the theory as to the association of blushing and mental confusion is correct.2 Indeed it is not a theory but a fact and may be stated much more emphatically than you have ventured to do. The vessels of the brain and head and face all receive the nerves which regulate their contraction or dilatation from the same sympathetic center, the cervical ganglia which are in intimate connexion with the spinal cord. The section of the sympathetic nerve in the neck produces the following among other effects—on the same side of the head as that on which the injury has taken place.3

1 Dilatation of blood-vessels (flushing),

2. Increase of Temperature

3. Redness and erection of the ear. (the experiment has of course only been performed on animals).

4. An advance of the third or nictitant membrane over the globe of the eye.

5 constriction of the pupil

6 Contraction of the muscles of the angle of the mouth and nostril.

7 Increase of sensibility

8. Increased acuteness of the sense of hearing.

The temperature within the cranium rises, along with the temperature of its external coverings after the section of the sympathetic. This increase of temperature of course betokens an increased afflux of blood to the brain which up to a point will produce increased sensibility and mental vivacity and beyond this dulling of sensibility and confusion of though. We see this illustrated in the phenomena of intoxication. The first effect of alcohol in those unaccustomed to its use is flushing of the face—along with this there is loquacity, acuteness brilliancy, but the next effect is increase of the flushing, and then we have confusion stupidity—and loss of self-control.

We constantly see the capillaries of the brain and those of the face associated both in states of dilatation and contraction. The first and most important step in an epileptic fit is spasm (contraction) of the vessels of the encephalon, and its first outward manifestation is an intense pallor of the countenance.4 In meningitis (inflammation of the membranes of the brain) in which we have congestion within the cranium, we have engorgement of the face & ears, suffusion of the eyes, and contraction of the pupils. I may mention in passing in relation to this contraction of the pupil that the delirium in meningitis is generally of a fierce character.

Nitrite of Amyl—discovered by Balard and first described in the Journal of the Chemical Society 18595—has the singular property of producing when inhaled, intense flushing of the head and face. When about five drops are inhaled from an hankerchief, a vivid redness suddenly bursts out on the cheeks, and rushes over the brow, in from thirty to sixty seconds. In experimenting with the Nitrite I have repeatedly noticed that whenever the flushing came out the patients grew stupid and confused and bewildered. They have ceased to give prompt intelligent and coherent answers to questions. One woman who had the Nitrite administered several times assured me. assured me that as soon as she got hot in the face she grew muddled all over.6 Some experiments with this substance would I think throw valuable light on your researches, but they would require to be conducted with great care and caution, and would not be without danger.7

Hydrate of Chloral, introduced into medical use, about two years ago; sometimes when given to people with enfeebled nervous systems, induces excessive flushing of the face.8 In every case in my experience, in which it has done so it has also at the same time induced mental confusion—in some instances trifling—in others extreme, amounting to a state of intoxication, and accompanied by staggering and loss of control over muscular co-ordination.

No fact in medicine is better established than that there is a close and delicate sympathy between the circulation in the brain and that in the face—and head—allowing of course for the difference of circumstances under which the circulation is carried on in the two. Not only as I before said have they a common center of nervous control, but they have also a common arterial trunk—the great carotid, and direct communication in some parts, for example in the orbit where arteries coming from the interior of the cranium, anastomose with others supplying the skin of the face. The important point to note is however the common nervous center. The muscular fibres that govern the diameter, of the blood vessels, receive their whole nervous supply from the sympathetic system, and consequently all motor influences operating upon these fibres whether derived from mental states or physical excitation are conveyed by the sympathetic nerves. Now the sympathetic nerves which supply the brain and those which supply the face have their centers in the same ganglia, and it is inevitable that an influence of any intensity will be propagated from the one to the other.

Given a mental emotion—say shame or slyness—then an influence created by this emotion is conveyed to the sympathetic ganglia—and from there is reflected, on to the face—producing blushing there—and also back to the brain also, producing blushing there also, betokened by increased agitation. This is a rough way of putting it.

If you care to look into the subject you will find much interesting information—as to the functions of the sympathetic nerves in Carpenters Physiology Sixth Edition 1864. p. 729.9

Whatever produces paralysis of the sympathetic in the neck induces hyperæmia of the brain and of the face. Intense neuralgia occasioning flushing of the cheek—is often accompanied by—headache giddiness and a sense of mental oppression.

I have read your remarks on blushing to my sister in-law,10 one of the best or worst blushers I ever encountered— a young lady very sanguine & sensitive and she pronounces them strictly correct. She says that when blushing she often stammers and does not know what she is saying. I suggestd to her that this was due to a feeling of increased awkwardness knowing that her blushing was observed—but she says, No because she has felt quite as stupid when blushing at a thought in her own room.11 I can make this young lady blush at any moment by looking at her intently. whenever I do so her manner becomes much embarassed.

Trousseau’s cerebral macular are only seen during life. They are in fact those singular red lines and blotches brought out by scratching rubbing or touching the skin.12

Erysipelas is in some senses a fair illustration of what you desire to enforce.13 Occasionally however it produces inflammation of the brain, not by sympathy or consentaneous action but by simple contiguity of tissue, travelling along the orbit into the cranial cavity.

CD annotations

1.5 the same sympathetic center] underl red crayon
11.2 The first … pupils. 11.7] scored red crayon
11.8 the delirium … character] scored blue crayon
12.1 Nitrite . . 1859— 12.2] scored red crayon
12.5 thirty to sixty seconds] underl red crayon
12.5 In . . bewildered. 12.7] scored red crayon
12.9 assured me that … all over. 12.10] double scored red crayon
14.1 No … head— 14.2] scored blue and red crayon
14.5 nervous control] underl red crayon
14.5 common arterial trunk] underl red crayon, underlining del red crayon
18.1 I have … blushers 18.2] red cross in margin, del pencil
18.4 to a … room. 18.6] scored blue crayon, del pencil
19.1 They … skin. 19.3] scored blue crayon
Top of memorandum: ‘Dr J. C. Browne— Relation of circulation of Brain & skin of Head.—’


The photograph is in the Darwin Archive–CUL (DAR 53.1: C137), and is inscribed ‘7 Brothers and Sisters “Imbeciles” all inmates of one Asylum in Scotland | JCB’.
CD gives a shortened version of Crichton-Browne’s list of effects in Expression, pp. 324–5.
See Expression, p. 325.
Amyl nitrite: a vaso-dilator now used to relieve angina (Butterworth’s medical dictionary). Crichton-Browne refers to Antoine Jérome Balard and to F. Guthrie 1859.
CD used the information on amyl nitrite in Expression, p. 325.
For experiments on the effects of amyl nitrite undertaken at the West Riding Asylum, see Aldridge 1871, pp. 94–7 (referred to in Expression, p. 325 n. 22), and Crichton-Browne 1873.
Chloral hydrate: tricholorethylidene glycol, a depressant of the central nervous system used as a hypnotic; it was first used in medicine in 1869 by Matthias Eugen Oscar Liebreich (Butterworth’s medical dictionary). Crichton-Browne and his assistants had been experimenting on the effects of chloral hydrate since February 1870 (Crichton-Browne 1871, p. 440; Aldridge 1871; Wallis 1875).
Crichton-Browne refers to William Benjamin Carpenter and to Carpenter 1864; chapter 15, ‘Of the influence of the nervous system on the organic functions’, begins on page 729. CD did not refer to this work in Expression.
Crichton-Browne’s sister-in-law has not been identified.
This case is cited in Expression, pp. 323–4.
Cerebral maculae: flushing of the skin in response to stroking, as in meningitis (Butterworth’s medical dictionary); a phenomenon described by the French physician Armand Trousseau (see Correspondence vol. 18, letter from James Crichton-Browne, 15 March 1870 and n. 3). CD gave this information in Expression, p. 326.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Crichton-Browne, James. 1871. Chloral Hydrate: its inconveniences and dangers. The Lancet 97: 440–1; 473–5.

Crichton-Browne, James. 1873. Nitrite of amyl in epilepsy. West Riding Lunatic Asylum Medical Reports 3: 153–74.

Expression: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1872.

Guthrie, Frederick. 1859. Contributions to the knowledge of the Amyl group. The Quarterly Journal of the Chemical Society of London, 11: 245–52.

Wallis, J. A. M. 1875. On the therapeutic value of chloral hydrate in epileptic convulsions. The West Riding Lunatic Asylum Medical Reports 5: 257–70.


Is sending notes on blushing. Offers information on physiology and pathology of blushing.

Has sent photograph of seven imbeciles in one family.

Letter details

Letter no.
James Crichton-Browne
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
West Riding Asylum, Wakefield
Source of text
DAR 161: 316, 195.1: 49
Physical description
ALS 4pp encl

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7689,” accessed on 15 April 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 19