Alois Alzheimer grew up in a small house in the German wine country near the River Main. Educated at medical schools in Tbingen, Berlin, and Wrzburg, Alzheimer received his M.D. from the University of Wrzburg at the age of 23. He began his career as a professor of Psychology in Breslau.
Alzheimer published several treatises on cerebro arteriosclerosis in 1904 and on Huntington’s chorea early in 1911. Together with Franz Nissl they established the pathologic anatomy of mental illness. In 1912 the University of Breslau appointed Alzheimer professor of psychiatry and director of the Psychiatric and Neurologic Institute.
But it was an event in 1906 that made Alzheimer a household name. It was in that year that a 51 year-old woman named “Auguste D.” was admitted to the Hospital for the Mentally ill and Epileptics in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. Alzheimer, then 42, was called in to help the woman, who had difficulty answering even the simplest of questions. When he asked her her name, she said it was “Auguste.” Asked what her husband’s name was, she also replied “Auguste.” She could not remember her address or place of birth. When reciting the alphabet she stopped at G, and she could no longer remember the order of the months. She continued to lose her memory up to her death five years later. Alzheimer was fascinated by the case. He paid careful attention at the autopsy to the atrophy in her brain, wrote about his findings, and shared it with his colleagues. Emil Kraeplin, a distinguished psychiatrist, proposed naming the dementia condition after Alzheimer, the study that is now known as Alzheimer’s Disease, a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, and the most common form of dementia.
Dementia affects 1 in 20 people over the age of 65, and nearly half of those over 85 have Alzheimer’s disease. A small percentage of people in their 30s and 40s develop the disease. Scientists still are not certain what causes Alzheimer’s. Researchers are exploring the role of genetics in the development of Alzheimer’s, but most agree the disease is likely caused by a variety of factors.
Alois Alzheimer died of rheumatic heart disease and cardiac failure at age 51.
This story is from Laura Lee’s “The Name’s Familiar: Mr. Leotard, Barbie and Chef Boyardee“