Remembering a Forgotten Co-discoverer of Alzheimer Disease

Alzheimer disease researchers everywhere are familiar with the founding story of their field, concerning the German doctor, Alois Alzheimer, who reported on abnormal pathology in the brain of a middle-aged woman who suffered from dementia. But scientists digging through historical archives in Prague have brought to light the existence of another investigator who made arguably even greater contributions to describing the disease, but whose contributions were tragically forgotten.

The Alzheimer Research Forum reports how researchers attending the 9th International AD/PD Conference in Prague this spring were jolted by Pavel Kalvach of the Charles University of Prague, who announced at the opening session that his very city had hosted a contemporary of Alois Alzheimer’s who had described the pathology of dementia in greater depth than did Alzheimer himself. That seminal investigator was Oskar Fischer, and his story resonates with historical pain. Fischer’s contributions were widely noted and debated when he published them in 1907, 1910, and 1912, and for some years afterward.

But they later became neglected as Fischer’s career crumbled amid nationalist tension and the anti-Semitism of his time. His life ended tragically in 1942 in Terezin (Theresienstadt), a concentration camp set up in a garrison town near Prague. This camp is especially known for having incarcerated noted artists, writers, musicians, scientists, and other scholars, whose cultural achievements in the camp the Nazis successfully touted as part of their propaganda campaign to hide the true horror of the camps, deceiving even the Red Cross on an invited visit in 1944.

Fischer remained largely consigned to oblivion, both in his home country and by most in the worldwide dementia community, until the fall of 2008, when Michel Goedert of the MRC laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, U.K., recounted in the journal Brain the story of what his visit to the Archives of Charles University, as well as conversations with Fischer’s descendants and present-day Czech researchers, brought to light.

Freely available for download with a photo of Fisher’s, Goedert’s paper makes for gripping reading about the historical context of Fischer’s life and also about how his observations intersect with those of other investigators at the time (Goedert, 2008).

“We are grateful to Goedert for this discovery. This country had completely forgotten Oskar Fischer,” Kalvach told the audience at the spring meeting. At the conference, Kalvach brought Fischer’s story to a wide audience as part of his broader account on the early history of dementia research in Prague. Alzforum writer Gabrielle Strobel recounts how a handful of scientists have patched together a portrait of Fischer’s life from scraps of scientific publications, drawings and interviews with descendants and contemporary researchers. For the full story, see:

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Source: Alzheimer Research Forum Foundation

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