Lost but not forgotten, a yellowing, turn-of-the-century file documenting the first known case of Alzheimer’s disease has been discovered in Germany.
The notes of Dr. Alois Alzheimer himself were found at the University of Frankfurt, where they had been misplaced in the archives.
The 32 pages from 1901 to 1906 detail the sad case of a 51-year-old woman known as “Auguste D,” a patient of the psychiatrist’s at the university hospital.
Her first symptom was irrational jealousy toward her husband after he took a walk with a female neighbor. She began having trouble cooking meals and dealing with money, began ringing neighbors’ doorbells, became paranoid and anxious and developed a heightened fear of death. She spent four years in bed, crying daily.
Her file reads: “She sits on the bed with a helpless expression. What is your name? ‘Auguste.’ Last name? ‘Auguste.’ What is your husband’s name? ‘Auguste.”’
Alzheimer described the progressive degeneration of the woman’s brain cells that led to memory loss, dementia and death.
“Holding the missing document is like holding history in your hands,” Dr. Konrad Maurer, a neurologist and chief of psychiatry at the University of Frankfurt, said Thursday at New York University’s Medical Center, where a reproduction of the file was displayed.
The file, kept by Alzheimer and his associates, includes photographs of Auguste, her desperate attempts to remember and write her name, the doctor’s sketches of her diseased brain cells and her autopsy report.
Auguste died in 1906 of an infection resulting from bedsores. Her case drew attention because she was relatively young when she developed senility of the sort normally seen in older people.
The disease was named when a colleague described Auguste’s case in a handbook of psychiatry published in 1910: “The clinical interpretation of this Alzheimer’s disease is still confused.”
The file, however, was last seen in 1909. It was misplaced among archives dating from 1930. After years of haphazard searching, it was accidentally discovered in December 1995.
The file is not the only missing piece of the Alzheimer’s puzzle. The preserved brain of Auguste D has never been found. Maurer believes it is somewhere in the archives, too.
The discovery of the file was first reported in the May 24 issue of the British medical journal Lancet.
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