Blogs > HNN > The Man Who Identified Alzheimer's Disease ... Dr. Alzheimer

Nov 3, 2006 7:20 pm

The Man Who Identified Alzheimer's Disease ... Dr. Alzheimer

[David Shenk is the author of “The Forgetting: Alzheimer’s, Portrait of an Epidemic.”]

ONE hundred years ago today, a 42-year-old German psychiatrist and neuropathologist named Alois Alzheimer shocked colleagues with his description of one woman’s autopsied brain.

The woman was named Auguste Deter. Five years earlier, her husband had admitted her to Alzheimer’s psychiatric hospital in Frankfurt with a disturbing set of symptoms: memory trouble, aphasia (loss of the ability to use words), confusion, bursts of anger and paranoia. She had become a danger to herself in the kitchen and needed constant care.

Alzheimer found his new patient sitting on a bed with a helpless expression.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“Auguste,” she replied.

“Last name?”


“What is your husband’s name?”

“Auguste, I think.”

“How long have you been here?”

(She seems to be trying to remember, he wrote in his notes.)

“Three weeks.”

It was her second day in the hospital. “I have lost myself,” she told her doctor. Over the next four and a half years, she grew increasingly disoriented, delusional and incoherent. She would scream for hours on end. Eventually, Auguste Deter became bedridden, incontinent and largely immobile, and then, in April 1906, at age 55, she died.

What was this strange disease that would take an otherwise healthy middle-aged woman and slowly — very slowly, as measured against most disease models — peel away, layer by layer, her ability to remember, to communicate her thoughts and finally to understand the world around her?

It looked like senile dementia, the sharp unraveling of memory and mind that had, for more than 5,000 years, been accepted by doctors and philosophers as a routine consequence of aging. But she was too young for senile dementia.

Alzheimer was able to look inside her brain for answers, thanks to a whirl of European innovation. Ernst Leitz and Carl Zeiss had just invented the first distortion-free microscopes. Franz Nissl had revolutionized tissue-staining, making various cell constituents stand out, opening up what was characterized as “a new era” of the study of brain cells and tissues....

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