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Who was Alois Alzheimer?

Alois Alzheimer. You may have heard of him. His name certainly occupies a top spot, being as it is attached to one of the most puzzling diseases to hit man.

It was in 1906 that the first neuropathologist identified the symptoms of what is now known as Alzheimer’s disease. That man, of course, is Alois Alzheimer, 42 at the time and working with Emile Kraepelin, the “Linnaeus of psychiatry” for close to four years. But if we were to dissect the works of this cigar-touting genius, it is imperative that we also take a look at the man.

Alois Alzheimer

Alzheimer, the Man and the Genius

Alois Alzheimer describes his professional life in his curriculum vitae, written in Munich in 1903, as follows: “The undersigned, Dr. med. Alois Alzheimer, Catholic, born at Marktbreit in Bavaria on the 14th of June 1864 as son of the Royal notary, Eduard Alzheimer, attended the elementary school at Marktbeit, the Gymnasium at Aschaffenburg and the Universities of Berlin, Tübingen and Würzburg.” In 1894, he married Cecilie Geisenheimer neé Wallerstein in Frankfurt.

A year after receiving his medical degree in 1887, Alois Alzheimer spent a total of five months accompanying mentally ill women on a journey, after which he joined the staff of the city mental asylum in Frankfurt am Main – the Städtische Irrenanstalt, which was headed by Emil Sioli. It was here that Alzheimer learned more about psychiatry, as well as neuropathology, which became a great interest of his.

One year later, the distinguished neurologist, Franz Nissl joined Sioli’s staff as second physician, and it was not soon after that he and Alois Alzheimer worked on an extensive investigation of the pathology of the nervous system. Their study focused in particular on the normal and pathological anatomy of the cerebral cortex. Their findings were later published between 1906-1918 in a 6-volume book called the Histologische und histopatologische Arbeiten über die Grosshirnrinde (Histologic and Histopathologic Studies of the Cerebral Cortex).

Nissl moved on to work with Kraepelin, the leading German psychiatrist at the time, in Heidelberg while Alois Alzheimer continued his research on a wide range of subjects, but this time as director of the Irrenanstalt in 1895.

Then, in 1906, Auguste Deter, a 55-year old woman whom Alois Alzheimer first met in 1901 as his patient, died. Alzheimer was working in Munich at the time but when he received the news, he asked his previous chief Sioli to get access to the records and brain of Auguste D. Later, in November of that same year, at a meeting of the South-West German Society of Alienists, he would describe the clinical and neuropathological features of Auguste D as “eine eigenartige Erkrankung der Hirnrinde” (a peculiar disease of the cerebral cortex). The disease later came to be known as simply “Alzheimer’s disease,” after the man who discovered it.

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