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History as a biomedical matter: recent reassessments of the first cases of Alzheimer’s disease

  • Lara KeuckEmail author
Original Paper
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. New Perspectives in the History of Twentieth-Century Life Sciences

Abstract

This paper examines medical scientists’ accounts of their rediscoveries and reassessments of old materials. It looks at how historical patient files and brain samples of the first cases of Alzheimer’s disease became reused as scientific objects of inquiry in the 1990s, when a genetic neuropathologist from Munich and a psychiatrist from Frankfurt lead searches for left-overs of Alzheimer’s ‘founder cases’ from the 1900s. How and why did these researchers use historical methods, materials and narratives, and why did the biomedical community cherish their findings as valuable scientific facts about Alzheimer’s disease? The paper approaches these questions by analysing how researchers conceptualised ‘history’ while backtracking and reassessing clinical and histological materials from the past. It elucidates six ways of conceptualising history as a biomedical matter: (1) scientific assessments of the past, i.e. natural scientific understandings of ‘historical facts’; (2) history in biomedicine, e.g. uses of old histological collections in present day brain banks; (3) provenance research, e.g. applying historical methods to ensure the authenticity of brain samples; (4) technical biomedical history, e.g. reproducing original staining techniques to identify how old histological slides were made; (5) founding traditions, i.e. references to historical objects and persons within founding stories of scientific communities; and (6) priority debates, e.g. evaluating the role particular persons played in the discovery of a disease such as Alzheimer’s. Against this background, the paper concludes with how the various ways of using and understanding ‘history’ were put forward to re-present historic cases as ‘proto-types’ for studying Alzheimer’s disease in the present.

Keywords

Alzheimer’s disease Auguste Deter Biomedical research Neuropathology Retrospective diagnosis Science history 

Notes

Acknowledgements

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the conference ‘New Perspectives in the History of the Life Sciences’ at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, the ‘History of Science Program Seminar’ at Princeton University, the ‘Nachwuchsforum Wissenschaftsgeschichte’ at the Leopoldina in Halle, the lecture series ‘Recycling in den Wissenschaften’ at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, and at the Colloquium of the Chair of the History of Technology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zürich). I would like to thank the participants of these events as well as two anonymous reviewers, and the editors Robert Meunier, Kärin Nickelsen, and Staffan Müller-Wille, for many helpful comments. Alfred Cheesman and Christof Sendhardt patiently proofread various versions of this paper.  Special thanks go to Konrad and Ulrike Maurer for meeting me in Frankfurt, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science as well as ‘The Branco Weiss Fellowship - Society in Science’, administered by ETH Zürich, for funding this research.

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HistoryHumboldt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany

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