The History of Alzheimer’s Disease

“Excessive reservations and paralyzing despondency have not helped the sciences to advance nor are they helping them to advance, but a healthy optimism that cheerfully searches for new ways to understand, as it is convinced that it will be possible to find them.”

These words from German physician Dr. Alois Alzheimer reinforce the value of looking forward, but they also seem especially visionary given the impact of Dr. Alzheimer’s research. His colleagues commented on his tireless commitment, which began with a single observation that continues to inspire decades of work in the fight against the disease that now bears his name.

It started with one person exhibiting an array of troubling symptoms, admitted to a hospital in Frankfurt, Germany in November 1901 where Dr. Alzheimer was a special assistant. Over the course of five years, Dr. Alzheimer observed the woman’s progression, and upon her passing in April of 1906, conducted an autopsy that helped him understand the physiological impact of what he described as this “peculiar disease.”

He rushed to publish his findings, and just a few years later in 1910, one of Dr. Alzheimer’s colleagues, the German psychologist Emil Kraepelin gave it the name we know it by today: Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers, scientists and advocates continue to make discoveries and establish key milestones in the fight against the disease, including:

Of course, a cure for the disease remains elusive. Still, over the course of the last 50 years, scientists, including those at Lilly, have gained a better understanding of how the disease affects the brain, in turn improving care for millions of people.

But we can do better, and doing better means laying the groundwork today for the change we want to see in the future. Dr. Alzheimer started this work, and together we can finish it. Of course, scientific breakthroughs don’t just happen overnight and they often involve years of research, trials, errors and, sometimes, setbacks. Armed with a healthy dose of Dr. Alzheimer’s optimism, we can search for new ways to understand, and in turn, make life better for people around the world.