Jean-Martin Charcot was born in Paris on Nov. 29, 1825.
Jean-Martin Charcot was born in Paris on Nov. 29, 1825.
At the age of nineteen, he began his medical studies at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris, and passed his internship in 1848.
About this time, he caught the eye of Professor Pierre François Olive Rayer, who was the personal physician of Emperor Napoleon III, and who later became dean of the Paris Medical Faculty. Until his death in 1867, Rayer unceasingly backed Charcot. At the Faculty of Medicine and in the Paris hospital system, Charcot passed successively from chief of clinic under Rayer in 1853, to physician to the Hospitals of Paris in 1876, and to "professeur agrégé" in 1860. Early in his academic medical career, he concerned himself chiefly with problems of internal medicine. He differentiated gout from rheumatism, and his studies on diseases of the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys, and on diseases of old age are lasting tributes to his great clinical and pathological perception. Charcot's interests eventually settled to the study of disorders of the nervous system. In 1862, he was appointed physician to the Hospital of the Salpêtrière, the place which was to become the center of his discoveries and fame. The Salpêtrière was begun in the seventeenth century as an asylum for the detention of beggars, old women, prostitutes, perverted girls, and for the imprisonment of insane women. It also served as a prison for women convicted of adultery, theft, or murder, and for political prisoners. When Charcot arrived, the Salpêtrière had lost most of its prison aspects, but was still a custodial institution for a hodgepodge of unclassified and displaced unfortunates, numbering about five thousand. Out of this "pandemonium of infirmities" Charcot developed, within a few years, the world's greatest center for clinical neurological research. He set up laboratories and services, and introduced his famous clinicopathologic approach to the study of neurological disorders. Many conditions in neurological research today were originally exposed by the probe of Charcot's investigative urge. Charcot's main contributions to neurology were made between 1862 and 1870 when he accurately classified for the first time many unknown diseases of the nervous system. During this period he showed by autopsy findings the relationship between poliomyelitis and certain other types of diseases in which the muscles atrophy or waste away. He described Charcot's joints - a nerve disorder where a wasting of the spinal cord causes a swelling of the joints, and he indicated that this disease was not rheumatism. In 1868 he gave the first accurate description of multiple sclerosis, and in 1869 came his dicovery of another spinal disease where a degeneration of the motor cells of the brain and spinal cord and a hardening of the long nerve tracts from the brain cause both muscular wasting and stiffness. With Charles Jacques Bouchard, he studied some of the causes of cerebral hemorrhage. Soon afterwards, he began his attack on injuries of the spinal cord, describing the anatomy and physiology of the spinal cord so well that little has been added, even today. The studies pursued by Charcot from 1870 to 1880 on the cerebrum and those that he inspired his pupils to continue aroused the keen interest of neurologists, physiologists, and surgeons, as well as philosophers and psychologists. They are among the most important of his life works, and in part provided a base for the development of the English school of dynamic neurology and neurophysiology headed by John Hughlings Jackson, Sir William Gowers, Sir David Ferrier, and Sir Victor Horsley. In 1872, Charcot was elected to the French Academy of Medicine. In 1882 the French Chamber of Deputies and the Minister of Public Education created the Chair of Clinical Diseases of the Nervous System for Charcot at the Salpêtrière, the first in medical history. By this time his fame as a scientist, practitioner, and especially as a teacher had attracted students and patients from all parts of the world. Charcot perhaps reached the height of his attainments through his novel teaching methods. His objective was "to teach and to convince" by lectures and clinical demonstrations, and he was the first to use projection material in medical teaching. In 1883, he was elected to the Institute of France. The final phase of Charcot's scientific career was devoted to studies on hysteria and hypnotism. While these added considerably to his worldwide fame, they gave rise to the only widespread criticism of his scientific endeavors. Many of his publicized observations were later discredited. Nevertheless, the vividness of his descriptions and his methods of diagnosis remain. This work provided a scientific background for the development of modern psychiatry, and among his many distinguished pupils was Sigmund Freud. In collaboration with Paul Richer, he collected this material into two books: The Demoniacs in Art and The Deformed and Diseased in Art--the most complete application of art to medicine ever made. He died on August 16, 1893 while on vacation in the Morvan region of France, and was buried in the Cimetière Montmartre in Paris.
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In 1881, he was made an honorary member of the American Neurological Association.
Charcot was an artist as well as a scientist. He was an expert draftsman, drawing most of his own illustrations. He also collected paintings, mosaics, tapestries, icons, and bas-reliefs that accurately portrayed neurological symptoms.
Charcot was an international personality who traveled extensively, and at his Tuesday evening parties entertained many leading politicians, writers, and artists, both from France and abroad.
He married a rich widow, Madame Durvis, in 1862 and had two children, Jeanne and Jean-Baptiste.