A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Jean-Martin Charcot
1825 - 1893

Jean-Martin Charcot was born in Paris, France, late in 1825. Although he was a nineteenth century scientist, his influence carried on into the next century, especially in the work of some of his well-known students.

He was a professor at the University of Paris for 33 years, and in 1862 he began an association with Paris's Salpêtrière Hospital that lasted throughout his life, ultimately becoming director of the hospital. Charcot was known as an excellent medical teacher, and he attracted students from all over Europe. His focus turned to neurology, and he is called by some the founder of modern neurology. In 1882, he established a neurological clinic at the Salpêtrière that was unique in Europe.

Charcot took an interest in the malady then called hysteria. It seemed to be a mental disorder with physical manifestations, of immediate interest to a neurologist. He believed that hysteria was the result of a weak neurological system which was hereditary. It could be set off by a traumatic event like an accident, but was then progressive and irreversible. To study the hysterics under his care, he learned the technique of hypnosis and soon became a master of the relatively new "science." Charcot believed that a hypnotized state was very similar to a bout of hysteria, and so he hypnotized his patients in order to induce and study their symptoms. He did not plan to cure them by hypnosis -- in fact, he felt that only hysterics could be hypnotized. He would hypnotize patients for groups of students and others, gaining the nickname "the Napoleon of the neuroses."

Among Charcot's students were Alfred Binet, Pierre Janet, and Sigmund Freud. They were impressed with Charcot and went on to use hypnosis in their own way, but disagreed with their teacher that it was a neurological phenomenon. They considered the hypnotic state a psychological one.

Charcot's work encompassed other aspects of neurology as well. He was first to describe the degeneration of ligaments and joint surfaces due to lack of use or control, now called Charcot's joint. He did research to determine the parts of the brain responsible for specific nerve functions and discovered the importance of small arteries in cerebral hemorrhage.

He died in 1893 in Morvan, France.

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