Alois Alzheimer was born in 1864 in Markbreit in Bavaria, Southern Germany. Excelling in sciences at school he studied medicine in Berlin, Aschaffenburg, Tübingen and Würzburg where he graduated with a medical degree in 1887. He began work in the state asylum in Frankfurt am Main, becoming interested in research on the cortex of the human brain. Here he commenced his education in psychiatry and neuropathology.
Along with Franz Nissl, a colleague at the asylum, Alzheimer spent the following years working on a major six volume study, the ‘Histologic and Histopathologic Studies of the Cerebral Cortex,’ describing the pathology of the nervous system. The work was finally published between 1907 and 1918.
In search of a post where he could combine research and clinical practice, Alzheimer became research assistant to Emil Kraepelin at the Munich medical school in 1903. There he created a new laboratory for brain research. Having published many papers on conditions and diseases of the brain, it was in 1906 that Alzheimer gave a lecture that made him famous. In it, Alzheimer identified an ‘unusual disease of the cerebral cortex’ which affected a woman in her fifties, Auguste D., and caused memory loss, disorientation, hallucinations and ultimately her death aged only 55. The post-mortem showed various abnormalities of the brain. The cerebral cortex was thinner than normal and senile plaque, previously only encountered in elderly people, was found in the brain along with neurofibrillary tangles. Alzheimer had access to a new stain and was able to identify these nerve tangles which had never previously been described. Kraepelin named the disease after Alzheimer.
Alzheimer married a banker’s widow, Cäcilia Geisenheimer, in 1894, a match which made him financially independent. Unfortunately, Cäcilia died in 1901 after only seven years of marriage. One of Alzheimer’s daughters, Gertrude, later married the physician Georg Stertz, who assumed the chair of psychiatry at Munich in 1946.
In 1913, on his way to Breslau to take up the post of chair of the department of psychology at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University, Alzheimer caught a severe cold complicated by endocarditis, from which he never fully recovered. He died in 1915 at the age of 51 and was buried next to his wife in the Jewish cemetery in Frankfurt am Main.
Today, the pathological diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is still generally based on the same investigative methods used in 1906. This is remarkable compared with the development of investigative methods for other diseases, and it speaks volumes about the quality of Alzheimer’s discovery.