Because we love alliteration here, meet Aloysius “Alois” Alzheimer, born June 14, 1864 in Marktbreit, Bavaria, Southern Germany.
He excelled in the sciences at school, where he studied medicine in Berlin. First at Ashaffenburg (no, it’s not a chocolate), Tubingen then Wurzburg, where he graduated with a medical degree.
After graduation, he spent five months working with mentally ill women before beginning his career at the state asylum, the Asylum for Lunatics and Epileptics (What does that say about epileptics of that time?). While there, Alzheimer co-founder and co-publisher the journal Zeitschrift für die gesamte Neurologie und Psychiatrie. (Gesundheit—oh wait, maybe that wasn’t a sneeze.)
Another noted neurologist, Franz Nissl, began work in the same asylum with Alzheimer. They worked together on a major six volume study, the “Histologic and Histopathologic Studies of the Cerebral Cortex,” describing the pathology of the nervous system. Much of Alzheimer’s later work on brain pathology made use of Nissl’s method of silver staining of the histolological sections.
By 1901, Dr. Alzheimer noticed a patient at the asylum named, Auguste Deter. She was 51-years-old and exhibited strange behavioral symptoms, which included short-term memory loss. She showed signs of disorientation, hallucinations—symptoms previously only encountered in the elderly. She would become his obsession.
In 1903 he became the research assistant to Emil Kreapelin at the Munich Medical School. Once there, he created a new laboratory for brain research.
In 1906 at the age of 55, Mrs. Deter died and the asylum sent Dr. Alzheimer her medical records and her brain. The post-mortem analysis of her brain displayed various abnormalities. Because of Alzheimer’s access to the Nissl stain, he was able to identify the senile plaque along with neurofibrillary tangles which had never before been described.
It was his speech on this finding on November 3, 1906, which was the first time ‘presenile’ dementia, as he called it, was described. And Kreapelin published a textbook calling the condition Alzheimer’s Disease which made Alzheimer’s name famous. By 1911 European physicians were using Alzheimer’s description of the disease to diagnose patients in the U.S.
He died on December 19, 1915 at the age of 51 from a heart attack caused by complications of catching a severe cold on a train to Bresalu, Silesia, Prussia (now called Wroclaw, Poland) while traveling to take up a new research position. He is buried next to his wife, Cecile, in the Hauptfriedhof in Frankfurt am Main.
Today, the pathological diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is still generally based on the same investigative methods used in 1906. Considering the advancements in modern medicine in the last hundred years, that says something about the detail of his work.