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The Brain of Genius

Gezelle's special head appealed to people's imagination and was often seen as a sign of his exceptional talent: the larger the head, the better the poetry. Family and friends bore witness to the remarkable size. The first biographers attributed mythological proportions to the poet's head and physical characteristics. But does Guido Gezelle's brain actually contain traces of genius that can be proven scientifically? That question concerned doctor and close friend Gustaaf Verriest who went on a scavenger hunt for genius.

Guido Gezelle
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Removal of the Brain

Both Gustaaf Verriest and his brother Hugo were former students of Gezelle. Gustaaf was a professor of internal diseases at the Catholic University of Louvain. As a ten-year-old student, he was already mesmerized by Gezelle's "extremely heavy head and those amazingly large bumps on his forehead." The day after the death of Guido Gezelle, he received permission from the family to remove the brain and conduct further examinations. He explained his findings at the Flemish Physical and Medical Congress in Bruges on September 29th, 1901, but he also spoke of it on later occasions.

“Verriest of Louvain came, with other surgeons, to perform the autopsy. A cast of the face and one of the right hand were taken. Then the surgeons removed the brain from the head for scientific study.”
Aloïs Walgrave - The life of Guido Gezelle, Flemish priest and poet, Amsterdam, 1923
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Childhood Illnesses

Verriest regarded Gezelle's poor condition as a child as a source of his genius, as he was afflicted by “the cruellest and most prolonged headaches". Like Shakespeare, Gezelle suffered from rickets, a bone disorder due to a lack of vitamin D and calcium. This would explain his physical build: a long body with short legs, but also the waterhead, the large brain content and the extensive brain folds.

“The boy, he said, was always struggling; I once went to see the best doctor in Bruges; he examined the child, kept on thinking for a while, and said: that boy's head is too thick, otherwise there’s nothing wrong.”
Guido Gezelle's father to Gustaaf Verriest about Guido as a child
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With his brain weight of 1674 grams Gezelle perfectly fits, according to Verriest, in the list of gifted men like Lord Byron, Thackeray, Wagner or Schubert. It is higher than the average brain weight of the European man, which fluctuates between 1350 and 1360 grams.

“The weight of the brain, determined some minutes after removal, was 1674 g with the pia.”
Gustaaf Verriest - Handelingen van het vijfde Vlaamsch Natuur- en Geneeskundig Congres" held at Bruges on September 29th, 1901
STR010938 002 Stijn Streuvels en Caesar Gezelle (Photo AMVC)


Verriest discovered that Gezelle’s speech center on the right side of the brain, was particularly developed. From this he deduced that Gezelle was born left-handed, but he probably had to unlearn this. Referring to the authors Stijn Streuvels (pseudonym of Frank Lateur) and Caesar Gezelle, both nephews of Guido Gezelle, he suspected that there was a hereditary aptitude for language skills in the family.

Guido Gezelle
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Traces in the Archives

In the Guido Gezelle Archives we can find various traces of Verriest's research: a plaster cast of Gezelle's brain and large scrolls with drawings of the cross-sections of the brain of Guido Gezelle and that of composer Peter Benoit. Verriest had used both the cast and the drawings as an illustration for his speech at the congress. After the death of Gustaaf, the Verriest family donated Gezelle's real brain to the Louvain Catholic University for further research. It was probably lost during a fire.

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The Myth

Verriest's lecture is more than an original footnote in Gezelle study. Although this did not happen on a large scale, he followed the scientific theories of his time. The remarkable shape of Gezelle’s head and his health also played an important role in both Gezelle study and image building around the poet. They fit into the romantic image of the malformed and misunderstood genius with a hereditary predisposition to gloom and sensitivity. For a long time the interpretation of his poetry also started from this point of view.

This website was composed by the Guido Gezelle Archives of the Bruges Public Library

Main Library Biekorf – Kuipersstraat 3 – 8000 Bruges- Belgium

050 47 24 00 bibliotheek@brugge.be

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