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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 June, 2005, 14:16 GMT 15:16 UK
A fame only in name
By Trevor Timpson
BBC News

Their names have passed into common vocabulary but their lives are little-known. As Down's Awareness Week gets under way, we look at the lives behind the names of some of the world's most well known diseases.

Some of the most famous people in the world are virtually unknown to millions of people who mention them every day.

Little more is widely known about these people than the names, which have been given to some of the most serious diseases afflicting humanity.

But their lives were often remarkable, both in and out of the medical sphere.


Plaque of John Langdon-Down
Plaque of John Langdon-Down at Normansfield

The man after whom Down's Syndrome is named did not want to be called Down at all.

Born in 1828, John Langdon Haydon Down wanted to change his name officially to Langdon-Down and settled eventually for John Langdon Haydon Langdon-Down.

His own grandson, born in 1905 nine years after his death, had Down's Syndrome.

Dr Langdon-Down pioneered education and training of the mentally handicapped in his own Normansfield Hospital in Teddington, Middlesex, from 1868.

He and his wife Mary, known as "Little Mother", ran a community surrounded by a farm and wooded grounds, where the patients learned trades, and imprisonment and teasing were forbidden.

The crowning glory was the theatre, opened in 1879, with the finest workmanship in scenery and lighting.

From the 1860s, Dr Langdon-Down published works classifying conditions by their mental and physical characteristics.

In line with popular theories of the time, he classed these types in racial terms, most of them long forgotten - but the term "Mongolism" was common until it was officially replaced by "Down's Syndrome" in the 1960s.

Conversion of the disused Normansfield Hospital to a hotel is planned. The magnificent theatre remains, though much restoration work has been necessary on its sumptuous scenery.


Alois Alzheimer's birthplace - courtesy of Eli Lilly Co
Alois Alzheimer's birthplace is now a museum

The story of the identification of Alzheimer's Disease has been made into a play in Germany, exploring "a fear none of us escapes - of losing our memory and suffering an undignified death."

Alois Alzheimer was born in 1864. In 1901, at the Frankfurt psychiatric institute, he examined a 51-year-old woman, Auguste Deter.

Alzheimer's notes on his conversations with Auguste reveal many sad losses of comprehension: "What is your name? Auguste. Last name? Auguste. What is your husband's name? Auguste, I think... She became agitated, screamed, was non-cooperative."

The papers in the case were rediscovered in 1995 by psychiatrist Konrad Maurer, and the conversations made into a play, The Case of Auguste D, by Dr Maurer and his wife Ulrike.

After Auguste's death Alzheimer discovered protein deposits and decayed nerve cells in her brain. He described the case in a lecture in 1906; the term Alzheimer's Disease was first used in 1910. Alzheimer died in 1915. His birthplace at Marktbreit in south-west Germany has been renovated and opened as a museum by the Eli Lilly Deutschland company.


Illustration from Dangerous Sports
Boy mauled by dog in Parkinson's Dangerous Sports

James Parkinson (1755-1824) was a physician who lived all his life in London's Shoreditch and was a keen geologist and fossil hunter.

In the turbulent years following the French revolution, he wrote radical pamphlets under the pseudonym "Old Hubert" and was questioned about an alleged plot to kill the King with a poisoned dart.

His Essay on the Shaking Palsy - defined as "involuntary tremulous motion, with lessened muscular power, in parts not in action" - was published in 1817 and is still hailed as a masterpiece of medical description. Of the six case studies set out, two were "casually met with in the street" and a third was only "seen at a distance".

Parkinson did not know what caused "his" disease. Scientists now say the disease is caused by a deficiency of the brain chemical dopamine.

He wrote a wacky children's book called Dangerous Sports - apparently a worthy volume of safety advice, but actually an uproarious satire in which a boy is hoisted up to the roof by a rope tied to a roasting spit, and the hero turns out to have been maimed by a tiger.


Thomas Hodgkin - portrait courtesy of Guy's and St Thomas' Charity
Thomas Hodgkin

Hodgkin has gained immortality as a medical researcher - but his work came to a sudden halt in 1837. Aged 39, he failed to gain appointment as assistant physician of Guy's Hospital in London and quit all his posts at the hospital.

A lifelong campaigner for aboriginal peoples, he had protested at the effects of the fur trade on the natives of northern Canada - and angered Guy's autocratic treasurer, Benjamin Harrison, who was deputy governor of the Hudson's Bay company.

Hodgkin's Disease is one form of lymphoma - cancer of the network of vessels that drain and filter the body's fluids, which is known as the lymphatic system.

He described the disease as "some morbid appearances of the absorbent glands and spleen" in 1832. Thirty years later his successor as anatomy teacher at Guy's, Sir Samuel Wilks, insisted that the malady should bear Hodgkin's name.

There are 29 other diseases grouped under the heading of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, which together are much more common.

But Hodgkin did not know that there was a special kind of cancerous cells (Reed-Sternberg cells) by which researchers decades later would define "his" lymphoma and distinguish it from the others.

He was once sacked by a wealthy patient for charging him too little and he also gave a celebrated lecture on the barks of different dogs - with impressions.

He died in Jaffa (now Yafo near Tel Aviv) in 1866 while on a visit with his friend Sir Moses Montefiore, and is buried there.

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