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Jean-Martin Charcot
Jean-Martin Charcot.jpg
Wearing Legion of Honour Officier,
with rosette
Born (1825-11-29)29 November 1825
Died 16 August 1893(1893-08-16) (aged 67)
Lac des Settons, France
Nationality French
Known for Studying and discovering neurological diseases
Awards Legion Honneur Commandeur ribbon.svg Legion of Honour – Commander (1892)
Scientific career
Fields Neurologist and professor of anatomical pathology
Institutions Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital

Jean-Martin Charcot ( 29 November 1825 – 16 August 1893) was a French neurologist and professor of anatomical pathology. He worked on hypnosis and hysteria, in particular with his hysteria patient Louise Augustine Gleizes. Charcot is known as "the founder of modern neurology", and his name has been associated with at least 15 medical eponyms, including various conditions sometimes referred to as Charcot diseases.

Charcot has been referred to as "the father of French neurology and one of the world's pioneers of neurology". His work greatly influenced the developing fields of neurology and psychology; modern psychiatry owes much to the work of Charcot and his direct followers. He was the "foremost neurologist of late nineteenth-century France" and has been called "the Napoleon of the neuroses".

Personal life

Born in Paris, Charcot worked and taught at the famous Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital for 33 years. His reputation as an instructor drew students from all over Europe. In 1882, he established a neurology clinic at Salpêtrière, which was the first of its kind in Europe. Charcot was a part of the French neurological tradition and studied under, and greatly revered, Duchenne de Boulogne.

He married a rich widow, Madame Durvis, in 1864 and had two children, Jeanne and Jean-Baptiste, who later became a doctor and a famous polar explorer.

He has been described as an atheist.



Jean-Martin Charcot chronophotography
Charcot uses hypnotism to treat hysteria and other abnormal mental conditions. All materials from "Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière" (Jean Martin Charcot, 1878)

Charcot's primary focus was neurology. He named and was the first to describe multiple sclerosis. Summarizing previous reports and adding his own clinical and pathological observations, Charcot called the disease sclérose en plaques. The three signs of multiple sclerosis now known as Charcot's triad 1 are nystagmus, intention tremor, and telegraphic speech, though these are not unique to MS. Charcot also observed cognition changes, describing his patients as having a "marked enfeeblement of the memory" and "conceptions that formed slowly". He was also the first to describe a disorder known as Charcot joint or Charcot arthropathy, a degeneration of joint surfaces resulting from loss of proprioception. He researched the functions of different parts of the brain and the role of arteries in cerebral hemorrhage.

Charcot was among the first to describe Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease (CMT). The announcement was made simultaneously with Pierre Marie of France (his resident) and Howard Henry Tooth of England. The disease is also sometimes called peroneal muscular atrophy.

Charcot's studies between 1868 and 1881 were a landmark in the understanding of Parkinson's disease. Among other advances he made the distinction between rigidity, weakness and bradykinesia. He also led the disease formerly named paralysis agitans (shaking palsy) to be renamed after James Parkinson. He also noted apparent variations on PD, such as Parkinson's disease with hyperextension. Charcot received the first European professional chair of clinical diseases for the nervous system in 1882.

Studies on hypnosis and hysteria

Charcot is best known today for his work on hypnosis and hysteria. In particular, he is best remembered for his work with his hysteria patient Louise Augustine Gleizes, who somewhat increased his fame during his lifetime; however, Marie "Blanche" Wittmann, known as the Queen of Hysterics, was his most famous hysteria patient at the time. He initially believed that hysteria was a neurological disorder for which patients were pre-disposed by hereditary features of their nervous system, but near the end of his life he concluded that hysteria was a psychological disease.

Charcot argued vehemently against the widespread medical and popular prejudice that hysteria was rarely found in men, presenting several cases of traumatic male hysteria. Charcot's analysis, in particular his view of hysteria as an organic condition which could be caused by trauma, paved the way for understanding neurological symptoms arising from industrial-accident or war-related traumas.


Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière
The painting "A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière" by Pierre Aristide André Brouillet. This painting shows Charcot demonstrating hypnosis on a "hysterical" Salpêtrière patient, "Blanche" (Marie "Blanche" Wittmann), who is supported by Dr. Joseph Babiński (rear). Note the similarity to the illustration of opisthotonus (tetanus) on the back wall.

Charcot thought of art as a crucial tool of the clinicoanatomic method. He used photos and drawings, many made by himself or his students, in his classes and conferences. He also drew outside the neurology domain, as a personal hobby. Like Duchenne, he is considered a key figure in the incorporation of photography to the study of neurological cases.

Distorted views of Charcot

Distorted views of Charcot as harsh and tyrannical have arisen from some sources that rely on a fanciful autobiographical novel by Axel Munthe, The Story of San Michele (1929). Munthe claimed to have been Charcot's assistant, but in fact, Munthe was just a medical student among hundreds of others. Munthe's most direct contact with Charcot was when Munthe helped a young female patient "escape" from a ward of the hospital and took her into his home. Charcot threatened to report this to the police, and ordered that Munthe not be allowed on the wards of the hospital again.


One of Charcot's greatest legacies as a clinician is his contribution to the development of systematic neurological examination, correlating a set of clinical signs with specific lesions. This was made possible by his pioneering long-term studies of patients, coupled with microscopic and anatomic analysis derived from eventual autopsies. This led to the first clear delineation of various neurological diseases and classic description of them, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Charcot is just as famous for his influence on those who had studied with him: Sigmund Freud, Joseph Babinski, Pierre Janet, William James, Pierre Marie, Albert Londe, Charles-Joseph Bouchard, Georges Gilles de la Tourette, Alfred Binet, and Albert Pitres. Among the doctors trained by Charcot at the beginning of the 20th century account the Spanish neuropathologists Nicolás Achúcarro and Gonzalo Rodríguez Lafora, two distinguished disciples of Santiago Ramón y Cajal and members of the Spanish Neurological School.

Charcot bestowed the eponym for Tourette syndrome in honor of his student, Georges Gilles de la Tourette.

Although, by the 1870s, Charcot was France's best known physician, his ideas about hysteria were later refuted, and French psychiatry did not recover for decades. An example of the dismissal of Charcot's views can be found in Edward Shorter's History of Psychiatry: Shorter states that Charcot understood "almost nothing" about major psychiatric illness, and that he was "quite lacking in common sense and grandiosely sure of his own judgement". This perspective overlooks the fact that Charcot never claimed to be a psychiatrist or to be practising psychiatry, a field that was separately organized from neurology within France's educational and public health systems. After Charcot's death, the phenomenon of "hysteria" that he had described was no longer recognized as a real neurological condition, but was considered to be an "artifact of suggestion". However, Charcot continued to have a "prominent" position in French psychiatry and psychology.

The negative evaluation of Charcot's work on hysteria was influenced by a significant shift in diagnostic criteria and understanding of hysteria which occurred in the decades following his death. The historical perspective on Charcot's work on hysteria has also been distorted by viewing him as a precursor of Freud. After Charcot's death, Freud and Janet wrote articles on his importance. However, Charcot's work on hysteria and hypnotism was at odds with the perspective Freud made famous, since Charcot believed in neurological determinism.

The Charcot-Janet school, which formed from the work of Charcot and his student Janet, contributed greatly to knowledge of multiple personality disorders.

Influence on the development of anti-Semitism

Charcot claimed to have observed a higher prevalence of diseases with a hereditary component (notably arthritis and neurological disorders) in Jewish communities, where limited numbers combined with longterm endogamy. He also used Jewish patients as examples in some of his public lectures.


Charcot's name is associated with many diseases and conditions including:

  • Charcot's artery (lenticulostriate artery)
  • Charcot's joint (diabetic arthropathy)
  • Charcot's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the most-common subtype of motor neurone disease—also known as Lou Gehrig's disease)
  • Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease (peripheral muscular atrophy), named with Pierre Marie and Howard Henry Tooth
  • Charcot–Wilbrand syndrome (visual agnosia and loss of ability to revisualise images), named with Hermann Wilbrand
  • Charcot's intermittent hepatic fever (intermittent pain, intermittent fever, intermittent jaundice, and loss of weight)
  • Charcot–Bouchard aneurysms (tiny aneurysms of the penetrating branches of middle cerebral artery in hypertensives), named with Charles-Joseph Bouchard
  • Charcot's triad of acute cholangitis (right upper quadrant pain, jaundice, and fever)
  • Charcot's neurologic triad of multiple sclerosis (nystagmus, intention tremor, and dysarthria)
  • Charcot–Leyden crystals due to the lysis of eosinophils in cases of allergic diseases, named with Ernst Viktor von Leyden
  • Souques–Charcot geroderma: a variant of Hutchinson–Gilford disease, named with Alexandre-Achille Souques
  • Charcot–Gombault necrosis: a biliary infarct, named with Albert Gombault

His name is also associated with a type of high-pressure shower.

Interesting facts about Jean-Martin Charcot

  • By decree on 22 April 1858, Charcot was made a Knight of France's Legion of Honour.
  • He was subsequently promoted in rank to Officer (decree: 4 April 1880), and then finally Commander (decree: 12 January 1892).*
  • A collection of Charcot's correspondence is held at the United States National Library of Medicine.
  • Charcot Island in Antarctica was discovered by his son, Jean-Baptiste Charcot, who named the Island in honor of his father.
  • The Charcot Award is given every two years by the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation for a lifetime of outstanding research into the understanding or treatment of multiple sclerosis.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Jean-Martin Charcot para niños

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