MS Heroes: Dr. Jean Martin Charcot

Community Member

Everyone has heroes. I know I do. Some of mine are MS heroes. I plan, from time to time, to share my MS heroes with you, tell a bit about who they are and how they are important in the MS world. My first MS Hero is Dr. Jean Martin Charcot (1825 - 1893). It just seems right to start with Dr. Charcot, because he was there in the beginning. Jean Martin Charcot was a professor at the University of Paris while working at Salpetrière (Asylum) Hospital. There he studied patients with undiagnosed chronic nervous system afflictions and performed autopsies. He noticed similarities among patients' symptoms and linked them to lesions found in post-mortem samples.

Luckily, he was very good at putting things together and documenting his observations. He described the clinical condition he found as sclérose en plaques. Multiple sclerosis became a known disease.

Now, to be fair, Charcot was the co-founder with Guillaume Duchenne, the Father of neurology. Dr. Charcot was interested and instrumental in many conditions closely related to MS, such as:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis and other joint diseases, carefully defining the differences
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis named Charcot' disease, later known as ALS and Lou Gehrig's disease
  • Cerebral hemorrhage known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease which further study proved to be Parkinson's disease
  • Muscular atrophy

Charcot remained interested in general medicine as well as neurology, and many diseases and conditions were named after him. He had a special interest in hysteria, considered at that time to be a mental problem. Charcot, however, was convinced hysteria had nervous system origins. Sigmund Freud, who was one of Charcot's many famous students, perpetuated that notion so that in the first part of the 1900s, women with MS were often dismissed as having hysteria.

Long before Charcot's work, there were people who had MS, such as the son of King George III in the 1700s and a young ice skater in Holland in the 1300s. No one knew what condition they had until Charcot identified it in 1868. He was the first to recognize the disease, and probably the first to find it confusing. "He was baffled by its cause and frustrated by its resistance to all of his treatments. They included electrical stimulation and strychnine - because this poison is a nerve stimulant. He also tried injections of gold and silver, . . "*
As he was studying the disease, he developed the first diagnosis criteria, named Charcot's Triad: double vision, balance problems, and slurred speech. Coincidentally, he saw these same symptoms in his housekeeper. He also developed the "first complete histological account of MS lesions," describing many important features including loss of myelin. MS as we know it was finally documented, and much of his writing is still considered valid. Dr. Jean Martin Charcot was perhaps the most important figure in multiple sclerosis history.

It is clear that Dr. Charcot is also an MS hero to the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation (MSIF). Starting in 1969, MSIF began recognizing his contributions with The Charcot Award presented every two years. Winners have demonstrated a lifetime of research achievement leading to greater understanding of MS. Charcot is probably a hero to many in and around the medical community. Far ahead of his time, he even opposed animal experimentation with the exception of Louis Pasteur's rabies tests. When he began practicing, studying and researching, many conditions, especially those involving the nervous system, were treated largely based on superstition.

Our thanks, Dr. Charcot, for helping usher MS health care from the archaic to the modern. Notes and Links: