Or was he in the right place at the right time?
Alois Alzheimer's, a doctor and academic, presented a key paper to the meeting of the South West German Society of Alienists on the 3rd November 1906. It was the first paper describing a clinical case of dementia and was an examination of the behavior of Frau Auguste D.
Frau Auguste had been admitted to the Municipal Mental Asylum in Frankfurt-am-main, Germany on 25th November 1901 at the age of 51 years. The senior physician at the hospital was Dr Alois Alzheimer.
By the time she died in April 1906, only 5 years later, Dr Alzheimer had moved to the Anatomical Laboratory of the Royal Psychiatric Clinic, Munich University as a co-worker to Dr Kraepelin. Frau Auguste D's brain was sent to Alzheimer and his findings of plaques and fibrules formed his hypothesis that there was an organic cause for her condition. The translated paper, only three pages long, describes symptoms that included, disorientation, aphasia, auditory hallucinations, paranoia, unpredicable behavior and pronounced psycho-social impairment. It is interesting to note that Alzheimer made no attempt to place the case in any sort of social or environmental context. Frau Auguste D's past life and institutional incarceration seem to have been ignored completely as a possible explanation of Frau D's mental state.
Dr Alzheimer's description of organic changes, atrophy, neurofibrils, and plaques linked to dementia was not a new discovery, yet it is his name that we link to dementia in most cases. Why should this be?
At the time, the first attempts were being made to classify illness and disease both organic and psychiatric. Kraepelin, probably better known for his classification of schizophrenia, is the pivotal figure. It was he that incorporated the study by Alzheimer on Frau Auguste D in his 1910 eighth edition textbook 'Psychiatrie'. Kraepelin stressed the role of organic changes occuring in the brain in his theories of mental illness. He described 'Alzheimer's disease' both as a distinctive disease that resulted from the action of a single cause and a distinct subcategory of senile dementia. In so doing Kraeplin describes the clinical behaviors that formed a set of distinct symptoms resulting from a specific organic cause.
Other exponents in the field could just as easily have been the figure head for a disease category, and instead of Alzheimer's disease we could easily be talking of Bonfiglio's disease, Fischer's disease, Fuller's or Perusini's dementia. Alzheimer just seems to have been in the right place at the right time. Kraepelin was making a name for himself as the head of the large Munich academic institution, he needed to increase its prestige and influence, what better way to do it than by using someone from the same department.
Alois Alzheimer died aged 51 of tonsillitis which had resulted in nephritis. In his life time he published 19 papers on subjects as diverse as eplilepsy, the classification of psychiatry, general paresis as well as on dementia. He could have little idea that his name would become an internationally understood description of a disease suffered by millions of people.
Alois Alzheimer born June 14 1864 in Marktbreit, Bavaria. Died December 19 1915 in Breslau.