Dr. Aloysius “Alois” Alzheimer (German: 14 June 1864 – 19 December 1915) was a Bavarian-born German psychiatrist and neuropathologist and a colleague of Emil Kraepelin. Alzheimer is credited with identifying the first published case of “presenile dementia”, which Kraepelin would later identify as Alzheimer’s disease.
Aloysius Alzheimer was born in Marktbreit, Bavaria on 14 June 1864. His father served in the office of notary public in the family’s hometown. The Alzheimers moved when Alois was still young in order to give their children an opportunity to attend the Royal Humanistic Gymnasium. Later Alois would study medicine in Aschaffenburg, Tübingen, Berlin, and Würzburg Universities.His college years were fairly typical, in his final year of school Alois was on the fencing team and fraternity, and even received a fine for disturbing the peace while out with his team. In April 1884, he married Cecille Simonette Nathalie Geisenheimer, with whom he had three children (Gertrud, Hans and Maria). Cecille passed away in 1901. In 1887, Alois Alzheimer graduated from Wuzburg with a degree in medicine.
The following year, he spent five months assisting mentally ill women, before he took an office in the city mental asylum in Frankfurt am Main: the Städtische Anstalt für Irre und Epileptische (Asylum for Lunatics and Epileptics). Emil Sioli, a noted psychiatrist, was the dean of the asylum. Another neurologist, Franz Nissl, began to work in the same asylum with Alzheimer. Together they worked on research in the field of the pathology of the nervous system, specifically the normal and pathological anatomy of the cerebral cortex.Alzheimer was the co-founder and co-publisher of the journal Zeitschrift für die gesamte Neurologie und Psychiatrie, though he never wrote a book that he could call his own.
While at the Frankfurt asylum Alzheimer also met Emil Kraepelin, one of the most well known German psychiatrist during this time. Kraepelin became a mentor to Alzheimer and the two would work very closely for the next several years. When Kraepelin moved to Munich to work at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital, in 1903 he invited his mentee to join him.At the time, Kraepelin was doing clinical research on psychosis in senile patients; Alzheimer on the other hand was more interested in the lab work of senile illnesses. The two men would face many challenges involving the politics of the psychiatric community. For example, both formal and informal arrangements would be made amongst psychiatrists at asylums and universities to receive cadavers In 1908 he was a professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University and the Neurological and Psychiatric Clinic of the Friedrich-Wilhelm University from 1912 until he fell ill
In 1901, Dr. Alzheimer observed a patient at the Frankfurt Asylum named Auguste Deter. The 51-year-old patient had strange behavioral symptoms, including a loss of short-term memory. This patient would become his obsession over the coming years. Auguste Deter was a victim of the politics of the time in psychiatric community; the Frankfurt asylum was too expensive for her husband. Mr. Deter made multiple requests to have his wife moved to a less expensive facility, however Alzheimer would intervene these requests. Auguste Deter remained at the Frankfurt asylum, where Alzheimer had made a deal to receive her records and brain upon her death. On April 8, 1906, Mrs. Deter died and Alzheimer had her medical records and brain brought to Munich where he was working at Kraepelin’s lab. With two Italian physicians, he used the staining techniques of Bielschowsky to identify amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. These brain anomalies would become identifiers of what later became known as Alzheimer’s Disease.
Alzheimer would discuss his findings on the brain pathology and symptoms of presenile dementia publicly on November 3, 1906, at the Tubingen meeting of the Southwest German Psychiatrists. The attendees at this lecture seemed uninterested in what Alzheimer had to say. The lecturer that followed Alzheimer would be speaking on the topic of “compulsive masturbation”, which the audience was so eagerly awaiting that they sent Alzheimer away without any questions or comments on his discovery of the pathology of a type of senile dementia. Following the lecture, Alzheimer published a short paper summarizing his lecture; in 1907 he would write a larger paper detailing the disease and his findings.The disease would not become known as Alzheimer’s disease until 1910, when Emil Kraepelin would name it so in the chapter on Presenile and Senile Dementia in the 8th edition of his Handbook of Psychiatry. By 1911, his description of the disease was being used by European physicians to diagnose patients in the US.
Solomon Carter Fuller was from America and he gave a similar report to that of Alzheimer at a lecture 5 months before Alzheimer. Oskar Fischer, was a fellow German psychiatrist 12 years Alzheimer’s junior. Fischer reported 12 cases of senile dementia at in 1907 around the time that Alzheimer published his short paper summarizing his lecture.
The two men had different interpretations of the disease, but never had the opportunity to meet and discuss ideas due to Alzheimer’s short life.
In August 1912, Dr. Alzheimer fell ill on the train on his way to the University of Breslau, where he had been appointed professor of psychiatry in July 1912. Most probably he had a streptococcal infection and subsequent rheumatic fever leading to valvular heart disease, heart failure and kidney failure. He never recovered completely from this illness. He died of heart failure on 19 December 1915, at the age of 51 in Breslau, Silesia, presently Wrocław, Poland. He was buried on 23 December 1915 next to his wife Cecilie in the Hauptfriedhof in Frankfurt am Main.
In the early 1990s, critics began to question Alzheimer’s findings and form their own hypotheses based on Alzheimer’s notes and papers. Amaducci and colleagues hypothesized that Auguste Deter had metachromatic leukodystrophy, a rare condition which in which accumulations of fats affect the cells that produce mylin. Another hypothesis offered by Claire O’Brien was that Auguste Deter actually had a vascular dementing disease. Through extremely fortunate circumstances the original microscope preparations on which Alzheimer based his description of the disease were rediscovered in 1998 in Munich and his findings could thus be reevaluated.
The slides confirmed that Auguste Deter did in fact have what is now known as Alzheimer’s Disease.
Alzheimer was known for having a variety of medical interests including vascular diseases of the brain, early dementia, brain tumors, forensic psychiatry and epilepsy. Alois Alzheimer was also a leading specialist in histopathology in Europe. His colleagues knew him to be a dedicated professor and cigar smoker