Let’s do a little brain test. Before reading anything else in this post, look carefully at the above photo. What do you notice about it? What appears odd or unusual? When and where was it taken? Does it look familiar?
Here is the full photo. Yes, the photo should look somewhat familiar because I used it in my previous post about dementia. I was first intrigued by the photo because it was labeled “Lewy family” even though it was clearly a work group in a scientific laboratory. What were those two women doing in a lab in ….1910? And what was the story on the Marx Brothers in the front row? — three guys who look so Italian they might suddenly burst into “O Sole Mio”. Once I found this version with names, I wondered about that non-German name of the guy standing to the right of Alzheimer. And this must be some prestigious lab if not one but two famous names (Alzheimer and Lewy) worked there.
Let’s find out some more about the people in this photo.
What about that guy with the non-German name, Nicolas Achucarro? He was from Bilbao, but he was not Spanish. He explains the odd press release I just reviewed — odd not because of its content, but its source. When I clicked to the research institution, the website was in….Euskara. If you don’t recognize this language, neither did I. The research institute turns out to be the Achucarro Basque Center for Neuroscience. , named after Achucarro, the first Basque neuroscientist. He died in 1918, only 38, a death not related to WWI, but instead Hodgkin’s Disease.
Adele Grombach is the woman over to the left. She worked as Alzheimer’s technical assistant and introduced co-workers and guests to neurohistologic techniques. Someone had to prepare all those lab samples of brain tissue to view under the microscope. Unfortunately, the woman in the middle is unidentified, but I find it amazing that there were not one but two women working in this lab — and that Grotman worked there until the end of World War II.
This photo turns out to document quite an international lab. Yes, the three Marx Brothers in the front row were indeed visiting physicians from Italy. Fritz Lotmar was from Switzerland. Stefan Rosental was from Poland. They all assisted Alzheimer in the autopsies in which he discovered the cerebral plaques that characterizes Alzheimer’s Disease.
There are several lessons from this historical excursion:
–Yes, it takes a village – a very international village — to research a disease – and find a cure.
–We can’t afford to cut off any country or group from that village. America’s president just used a vulgarity to disparage a whole continent (Africa), yet I just read an article headlined “African immigrants among most educated entering US“.
–We can’t allow Trump and his supporters to let their hatred drag down America from its leading role in research. Look at what happened to Germany: In 1910, scientists like Achucarro taught themselves German so they could participate in the latest research — today that language would be English (at least for now). Frederic Lewy was not the only Jew who had to flee persecution from 1930s Germany. How much brain trust did Germany lose because of the Nazis’ hatred? How long did it take the country to rebuild that brain trust?
–We must continue to encourage women to enter and thrive in the sciences – the Adele Grombachs of the future. I just read the obituary of Ben Barres, not only a researcher of neurodegenerative diseases, but also a defender of women in the sciences: Barres had the unique perspective of a transgender, transitioning from a woman to a man in 1997. He wrote “…People who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”
–We can’t rely on one approach, one lab, or one scientist. Alois Alzheimer joined this lab at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital in Munich in 1903. By 1912, he had left the lab for another professorship, and by 1915, he was dead at 51. Why? He never recovered from the strep infection he caught on the train to his new job. Penicillin wouldn’t be discovered until 1920.