Jean-Martin Charcot Biography


Birthday: November 29, 1825 (Sagittarius)

Born In: Paris

Jean-Martin Charcot was a French neurologist and professor, who is considered the founder of modern neurology for his pathbreaking research on hysteria. While studying at the ‘University of Paris Medical School’, he did his internship at the ‘Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital’, which served as a dumping ground for female lunatics, beggars and prostitutes at that time. After receiving his training from the revered neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne, he began his career at the medical school as the Chef de Clinique. At the age of 37, he returned to the ‘Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital’ as a senior physician. During his stint there, he focused on improving facilities, which began with the establishment of a pathological laboratory at the hospital. After examining each patient separately, he correlated the clinical findings with their pathological reports and classified the patients based on their specific neurological disorder. Later, he also introduced photography, ophthalmoscopy and microscopy at the hospital. By the 1870s, he began to be considered as the country’s best-known physician. In his later career, he concentrated on hysteria and used hypnosis as one of his investigating tools. Concurrently, he excelled in his academic career and became a professor of pathology at the age of 47. A decade later, he became the chairman of the neurology department. Charcot was also a prolific writer, who penned many ground-breaking articles, which elevated medical sciences to a higher level.
Quick Facts

French Celebrities Born In November

Died At Age: 67


Spouse/Ex-: Augustine Victoire Durvis Laurent Charcot

father: Simon-Pierre Charcot

mother: Jeanne-Georgette Saussier

children: ean-Baptiste Charcot, Jean-Baptiste Charcot

Neurologists French Men

Died on: August 16, 1893

place of death: Lac des Settons

City: Paris

More Facts

education: University of Paris Medical School

Childhood & Early Life
Jean-Martin Charcot was born on 29 November 1825, in Paris. His father, Simon-Pierre Charcot, a coach builder of limited financial means, was originally from Champagne. His mother’s name was Jeanne-Georgette Saussier.
Charcot was the eldest among his parents’ five children. He had four brothers named Eugène Martin (born 1826); Pierre Martin (born 1828); Emile Martin (born 1830) and Jean Eugène (born 1831). They grew up in a mixed locality, where commercial enterprises existed alongside middle class home and aristocratic mansions.
Charcot was a quiet child who showed great interest in medicine right from his early childhood. He also loved to draw and paint. Since his father had limited means, he declared that he would send his brightest child to medical school, and Charcot won the race very easily.
In 1831, he began his elementary education at Pension Sabatier, where he moved to the high school section in 1838. By the time he received his baccalaureate certificate in 1843, he had gained mastery over French, English, German and Italian languages.
Charcot enrolled in the medical school of the ‘University of Paris’ in 1843. His expertise in different languages enabled him to read medical literature in different languages. This helped him gain in-depth knowledge of multiple branches of medicine.
His life in medical school was far from comfortable, as he was living in a cold room in the Latin Quarter. Yet, in December 1845, he successfully competed for externship at the ‘Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital’, then a dumping ground for beggars, insane women and prostitutes. From 1846, he began to work as an extern there.
In 1848, after he completed his four years’ course in medicine, he was appointed an interne des hôpitaux at the ‘Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital’, where he received his training under legendry neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne. Because of his dual education and frequent interruptions, he took nine years to complete his studies.
On March 16, 1853, after he successfully defended his inaugural thesis on the difference between gout and rheumatoid arthritis, he was awarded his Docteur en Medicine degree with the highest grade. The paper was based on 41 case histories he had observed as an interne at the ‘Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital’.
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Early Career
Immediately after receiving his MD degree in 1853, Jean-Martin Charcot began his career as the Chef de Clinique at the Medical School, University of Paris. He served there under Pierre Adolphe Piorry until 1855. A year later, he became médecin des hôpitaux de Paris at Bureau Central des hôpitaux de Paris.
As a médecin des hôpitaux, his main duty was to examine outdoor patients, after which he had to make a preliminary diagnosis and prescribe the treatment to them. While he saw hundreds of patients every day, he yearned for a hospital duty, which would have given him a better chance of examining each case.
Concurrently with his hospital duty, Charcot continued to teach privately, a practice he had started as an intern. In addition to that, he tried to set up a private practice to conduct some independent research. He published several papers on his findings during this time, but they failed to attract much attention.
Senior Physician & Professor
Jean-Martin Charcot left the Central Hospital Bureau in 1860 to accept a teaching position, as the professeur agrégé, at the ‘University of Paris’. His dream of serving in a big hospital was realized when he was appointed a senior physician at ‘Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital’, which catered to around 5000 patients, in 1862.
Out of 5000 patients that came to the ‘Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital’ hospital, at least 3000 suffered from neurological diseases. As Charcot was responsible for supervising the medical facilities there, it gave him better opportunities to closely observe various types of neurological disorder. He also started working toward organizing the hospital’s system that was in a complete mess at that point.
He realized that there was an important relationship between clinical and anatomical findings. He therefore established a pathological laboratory at the hospital. Through clinical observations, he first gathered extensive data, noting down the changes in clinical symptoms of each patient, and then correlated them with the pathological findings.
Although the technique was earlier discovered by Italian pathologist Giovanni Morgagni and revised by René Laennec, it was Charcot who started demonstrating it to his students and fellow clinicians regularly. Thus, he brought the almost forgotten technique to the forefront of medical practice.
After examining each patient separately and then correlating their symptoms with the pathological findings, he began to classify them according to their specific neurological disorder. He also adopted Duchenne's procedure of photographic experiments and introduced photography, ophthalmoscopy and microscopy at the hospital.
The period between 1862 and 1870 was highly productive for Charcot from a scholarly point of view. During this period, he wrote many distinguished papers on multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and the localization of lesions of the spinal cord; which revolutionized the field of modern neurology.
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In 1866, he started giving annual lectures on chronic diseases, diseases of old age and diseases of the nervous system. He began to work on paralysis agitans in 1868. After his three years’ research, he distinguished a link between rigidity, weakness and bradykinesia, renaming it Parkinson’s disease after James Parkinson.
Charcot was appointed the professor of pathological anatomy at the University of Physics in 1872. Concurrently, he continued to serve at the ‘Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital’. Very soon, he began to be considered the best known physician in France.
In 1872, the first volume of his book ‘Leçons sur les Maladies du Système Nerveux’ (Lectures on the Diseases of the Nervous System) was published. Subsequently, four more volumes of the book were printed.
Charcot was equally successful as a professor. He not only lectured on diseases, but also provided cadavers and specimens to his students so that they could gain firsthand knowledge. Later, many of his students went on to become renowned medicine practitioners.
In 1881, he went to London to attend the International Medical Congress, which brought him instant international recognition. Taking note of the recognition, the French parliament created a new chair for diseases of the nervous system at the ‘University of Paris’.
Charcot was elected to the newly created chair of neurology at the ‘University of Paris’ in 1882. In the same year, he opened a neurological clinic at the ‘Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital’, which went on to become the best neurological clinic in Europe.
Studying Hysteria
In the 1880s, Jean-Martin Charcot started researching on hysteria, which he considered a neurological disorder, calling it ‘hystero-epilepsy’. He created a special ward for the non-insane ‘hystero-epilepsy’ patients and used hypnosis to investigate their cases. Very soon, he was able to make a distinction between major and minor hysteria.
He also held regular clinical demonstration, enabling his students and public to watch the expressions of traumatized patients. He argued against the popular view that men did not suffer from hysteria. He pointed out that such cases often went unrecognized and untreated, a view that was later accepted by physicians.
In 1888, Charcot published an important work called ‘Leçons du Mardi à la Salpêtrière’ (Tuesday Lessons at the Salpêtrière). It contained excerpts from nine case presentations on general neurology, delivered at the ‘Salpêtrière Hospital’ in 1887-88.
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Toward the end of his career, he questioned his own work and declared that hysteria was not a neurological, but a psychological disease. Working with his student Joseph Babinski, he was now trying to find a cure for hysteria.
After realizing that ‘hystero-epilepsy’ patients often imitated each other, he had them transferred to general wards, keeping them apart from each other. When it helped reduce the symptoms, he started ‘counter-suggesting’ and focusing on the reasons that provoked such a situation.
Charcot continued to hold both his positions at the ‘University of Paris’ and the ‘Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital’ until his death in 1893. During his career, he made a number of contributions in the field of neurology and inspired many upcoming physicians and scholars. Although criticized by many of his contemporaries, he is now known as the ‘Father of Modern Neurology’.
Major Works
Jean-Martin Charcot is best remembered for his work on hysteria and hypnotism. His research on Louise Augustine Gleizes, a hysteria patient at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, proved to be especially very significant. Possibly in 1878, Charcot hypnotized her and as she started showing symptoms of hysteria, he took several pictures, demonstrating symptoms, such as amnesia, paralysis, anesthesia, contractures and spasms.
Awards & Achievements
Jean-Martin Charcot was made an officer of the ‘Légion d’honneur’ for his contributions in the field of neurology.
In 1860, he was elected the vice president of the Société de biologie.
He was made a member of the Académie de medicine in 1872.
Charcot became an honorary member of the Société anatomique in 1882. In the same year, he was also created a doctor of honor at the ‘University of Würzburg’.
In 1883, he was elected to the Académie des sciences.
Family & Personal Life
Jean-Martin Charcot married Victoire Augustine Laurent in 1862. She was a rich widow who had a daughter named Marie Durvis. The couple had two more children, a daughter named Jean Charcot and a son named Jean Baptiste Etienne Auguste Charcot.
Jean Baptiste, born in 1867, initially followed into his father’s footstep to become a physician. Later, he became a famous oceanographer and scientific explorer, who undertook many daring explorations.
Charcot’s health began to fail in 1890; and subsequently, he had several attacks of angina. Yet, he continued to work, contributing to the first issue of ‘Archives de neurologie’, for which he served as an advisor.
On 16 August 1893, Charcot died suddenly from pulmonary oedema at the age of 67 while holidaying in the Morvan. His funeral service was held in the Chapel of the Salpêtrière, and he was buried at the Montmartre churchyard.
Today, his name is associated with at least 15 medical conditions and diseases. Chief among them are Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease, Charcot's artery, Charcot's joint, Charcot–Wilbrand syndrome, Charcot–Bouchard aneurysms, Charcot's triad of acute cholangitis, Charcot's triad of multiple sclerosis and Charcot–Leyden crystals.
Jean-Martin Charcot’s demonstration on ‘hystero-epilepsy’ was attended by his student Sigmund Freud in 1885. Freud was so impressed by the presentation that he began to work on the condition himself. He went on to establish a new branch of medicine we now know as psychoanalysis. Freud later referred to Charcot as his master.
Charcot was a great artist and music lover, and Beethoven was his favorite composer. He was also an animal lover and never experimented on animals. The inscription on his door read: "Vous ne trouverez pas une clinique des chiens chez moi", which means “you find no dog clinic with me”.

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