COMPANION

George Ellett Coghill

Coghill, George Ellett (1872–1941), US professor of anatomy and researcher into the development of reflexes of movement in vertebrates. Coghill wrote an appreciation for The Universal Constant in Living, and Alexander and his supporters used Coghill’s discoveries as a scientific support for the Alexander Technique.

Life

Coghill started his biology studies in 1897, became assistant professor of biology in 1900, and took a Ph.D. in 1902. He then worked at several universities but it was during his teaching at the University of Kansas (1913–25) that he carried out a large scale study of the embryonic behaviour of the American newt, Amblystoma. In 1925 he became a full-time researcher at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology, and in subsequent years he won increasing recognition for his work through his many lecture tours. He provided a comprehensive overview of his work in three lectures delivered in 1928 at the University of London, Anatomy and the Problem of Behaviour (subsequently published by Cambridge University Press).[1] He was also associated with the Journal of Comparative Neurology, as contributor, editor or assistant editor. For several years Coghill had to work under adverse conditions and in 1935 his work was abruptly terminated when he was dismissed from the Wistar Institute without warning. He continued his research during his retirement in Florida (1935-41), but was handicapped by recurrent heart trouble of which he died in July 1941.

Research

His lifelong study was the investigation of understanding the connection between physiology, anatomy and psychology; how can behaviour be understood in terms of our biological make-up? More exactly he sought to answer the question: What is the relationship between our bodily organisation as a mechanism in action and those mental capacities which seem to control the actions of the body and which give us increasing control over our environment?

After a number of different studies, Coghill began in 1922 his most detailed study of the embryonic movement patterns (as this was considered to be the foundation for behaviour) of the salamander Amblystoma. Several thousand eggs were collected, incubated and hatched, and continuous observations were made on hundreds of specimens. On a round table, thirty living specimens from the same clutch of eggs, each in a separate dish, were set in a circle. An overhanging microscope was moved from one to the next, and the reactions of each embryo to tactile stimulation were recorded. The circle was completed in about 15 minutes and the cycle was immediately repeated. Coghill and his helper took turns in order to create a continual record at 15-minute intervals of the responses of each of thirty specimens from first motility to swimming, a total of about sixty hours. The months of work and the voluminous statistical material, published in various papers, provided the essential foundation for much of Coghill’s further investigations. He went on to study the early stages of behaviour and the correlated apparatus of integration and association, up to the perfection of the swimming movement; this included an unfinished study of the development of leg reflexes. He also investigated the relations of fin movements to body movements.

When Coghill started his investigations the general assumption was that single, distinct reflex units constitute the basic building blocks of movement (and ultimately of behaviour). Coghill’s research led him to a different conclusion: that an organism starts with a single organising reflex pattern (his ‘total pattern’) and that more specialised reflexes (‘partial pattern’) emanate from this. For him the integration of the whole organism would come first so as to avoid any conflict between individual reflexes. The idea of a total pattern taking care of the organism-as-a-whole before any reaction took place fitted well with Alexander’s view.

Connection with the Alexander Technique

The connection was established by Arthur F. Busch (often writing under the pen name of Michael March) who wrote a regular column for The Brooklyn Citizen (New York). Busch first wrote on Coghill in April 1939, and again in May 1939, where he also published a letter by Coghill.[2] [3] [4]

In 1939 Drs Macdonald, Douglas and Murdoch argued in letters in the British Medical Journal that Coghill’s work on the amblystoma provided scientific confirmation of Alexander’s discovery of the primary control.[5] [6] [7]

Upon reading Alexander’s books, Coghill immediately acknowledged that his work and Alexander’s established the same principles in vertebrate behaviour.[8] Coghill wrote of Alexander to a colleague: ‘Mr Alexander seems to me to be a very unusual man. He has grasped the same scientific principles through practical work with human beings that I have found through my investigations of detailed anatomy in the lower forms.’[9] When Alexander moved to Massachusetts because of the war, he visited Coghill in Florida in February 1941 and worked with him during the whole weekend. Alexander described it as his ‘longest lesson.’[10] Coghill finished his ‘Appreciation’ a few weeks before he died.

Writings

Coghill wrote numerous scientific articles but his only writing on the Alexander Technique is his ‘Appreciation’, published in UCL. He provides a summary of his research in his Anatomy and the Problem of Behaviour (1929).

Other people’s writings on Coghill and the Alexander Technique

  • Walter Carrington produced a comparative study of the work of Coghill and Alexander in 1941, the most detailed yet.[11]
  • A 1949 biography by C. Judson Herrick provides an introduction to all of Coghill’s work.[12]
  • An article ‘Alexander’s Meeting with Coghill’ in The Alexander Journal covers the history of their first and only meeting.[13]
  • An example of an article which uses Coghill’s research as support for Alexander is ‘F. Matthias Alexander and the Problem of Animal Behaviour’ by A. Rugg‑Gunn.[14]
  • A summary of Coghill’s research with its implication for the Alexander Technique is given in notes of the Mouritz edition of UCL.[15]

Legacy

Alexander and his supporters saw Coghill’s research as support for the Alexander Technique, as did Coghill. ‘Support’ was sometimes also equated with ‘proof’ or ‘evidence’, and so Coghill’s research was widely quoted at least until the 1970s (e.g. F. P. Jones in Freedom to Change, 1976, does not challenge this view, although he does not endorse it either.)

The 1944 Manpower article was the first to insist that Coghill’s research does not provide any evidence in support of Alexander:

What he [Coghill] writes with regard to the development of the nervous system of this primitive animal, although probably correct, has no bearing whatever upon Mr. Alexander’s sweeping theories.[16]

Nikolaas Tinbergen, writing about Coghill in 1951, concluded: ‘It seems that one cannot “crystallize out” from a diffuse total response, and that a kind of additive type of integration may play a part too, perhaps especially in the higher levels.’[17]

Slowly, teachers of the Alexander Technique started to view Coghill’s research as outdated and/or not relevant to the Technique. Dr Wilfred Barlow wrote in 1978:

In retrospect, it appears that Alexander’s supporters, myself included, over-emphasised the possibility that Coghill had given good scientific backing for his ideas. In recent years, it has seemed more and more likely that a large part of Alexander-learning is by the addition of separately learned components, rather than simply by differentiation out of a generalised total pattern.[18]

In 1981 Ron Dennis cites Aspects of Neural Ontogeny (1968) which points to several developments which ‘have eroded the Coghillian dictum’, and which concludes, ‘There is no evidence for the existence of a “total pattern” in these forms.’[19] [20]

Although there were passing references to Coghill in some Alexander Technique introductory books post 1955, his research was rarely explained. The consensus among scientists today is that Coghill’s research cannot be generalised to apply to all species (as Coghill thought), and that his discoveries apply to embryonic development (within some species only) and cannot be applied to learning (behaviour) at later stages of development. Today Coghill’s research is no longer used as scientific evidence for the Alexander Technique and is rarely referred to.

References

[1] Anatomy and the Problem of Behaviour by G. E. Coghill (Cambridge University Press, 1929).
[2] ‘The basic error of psychology’ by Michael March in The Brooklyn Citizen 7 April 1939. Also in A Means To An End – Articles and Letters on the Alexander Technique 1909–1955 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2015), pp. 50-52.
[3] ‘Psychological controversy’ by Michael March in The Brooklyn Citizen 1 May 1939. Also in A Means To An End – Articles and Letters on the Alexander Technique 1909–1955 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2015), pp. 53-56.
[4] Psychological controversy’ by Michael March in The Brooklyn Citizen 12 May 1939. Also in A Means To An End – Articles and Letters on the Alexander Technique 1909–1955 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2015), pp. 56-59.
[5] ‘Control of functioning’ by Dr Peter Macdonald in the British Medical Journal, 17 June 1939. Also in A Means To An End – Articles and Letters on the Alexander Technique 1909–1955 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2015), pp. 236-37.
[6] ‘Control of functioning’ by Dr Mungo Douglas in the British Medical Journal, 1 July 1939. Also in A Means To An End – Articles and Letters on the Alexander Technique 1909–1955 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2015), pp. 114-15.
[7] ‘Control of functioning’ by Dr A. Murdoch in the British Medical Journal, 15 July 1939. Also in A Means To An End – Articles and Letters on the Alexander Technique 1909–1955 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2015), pp. 266-67.
[8] The Universal Constant in Living by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), p. 113.
[9] Quoted in George E. Coghill – Naturalist and Philosopher by C. Judson Herrick (University of Chicago Press, 1949), p. 87.
[10] The Universal Constant in Living by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), pp. 232–34.
[11] The Foundations of Human Well-Being by Walter H. M. Carrington (STATBooks, 1994).
[12] George E. Coghill – Naturalist and Philosopher by C. Judson Herrick (University of Chicago Press, 1949).
[13] ‘Alexander’s Meeting with Coghill’ by Edward H. Owen, in The Alexander Journal, no. 3, Spring 1964, pp. 20-22.
[14] ‘F. Matthias Alexander and the problem of animal behaviour’ by A. Rugg‑Gunn in The Medical Press and Circular, 3 April 1940, vol. cciii, no. 5265, pp. 285–287. Also in The Alexander Journal no. 4, edited by Wilfred Barlow (STAT, 1965), pp. 25-31. Also in A Means To An End – Articles and Letters on the Alexander Technique 1909–1955 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2015), pp. 304-09.
[15] The Universal Constant in Living by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), pp. 234–39.
[16] ‘Quackery Versus Physical Education’ Editorial in Manpower 1944, in South African Libel Case 1948 Vol. 1 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2016), p. 40-41.
[17] The Study of Instinct by N. Tinbergen (Oxford UP, 1976 [1951]), p. 137.
[18] ‘The total pattern of behaviour’ by Dr Wilfred Barlow in More Talk of Alexander edited by Dr Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2005), pp. 262-63.
[19] ‘A note on Coghill’ by Ron Dennis in The Alexandrian, vol. 1, no. 1, 1981.
[20] Aspects of Neural Ontogeny by A. F. W. Hughes (Logos Press, 1968), p. 170.