The Doctor Who Became Insane Himself
October 30, 1857 – Birth date of French physician and neurologist Georges Gilles de la Tourette.
As one of the pupils of famous French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) at the Paris Salpêtrière hospital, Tourette experimented with the use of hypnosis as a method in psychotherapy. One of his specialisms was working with patients who suffered from hysteria. People considered him brilliant, though not always friendly.
As a young assistant in 1884, he was the first to analyze a condition characterized by recurring involuntary movements and tics (sometimes with rude, offensive vocalizations). Named after him, this illness is still known today as the “Tourette Syndrome”.
When in the early evening of December 6, 1893 Tourette returned home from the hospital, he found a young woman waiting for him. This girl was 19-year-old Rose Kamper (1864-1955), a former Sainte-Anne asylum patient who had participated in one of Tourette’s hypnotism sessions. After a brief exchange in which she asked Tourette for money, she produced a pistol and shot him in the neck. The wound was not fatal.
After the shot, Rose Kamper kept sitting quietly in Tourette’s waiting room. She later explained that she suspected Tourette to be in love with her, that she had been hypnotized without her consent to take over control of her will “at distance”, and that there was another person in her who had made her shoot.
Kamper was diagnosed with what we today would call paranoid schizophrenia and quickly locked in the asylum again. She would spend much of the rest of her life going in and out of mental hospitals, once stabbing a nurse with a fork; in 1910 she would cause a large-scale police hunt when she managed to escape from an asylum.
Meanwhile the news of a patient shooting a therapist had gotten very much publicity in the French popular press. It was sensationalized like this:
“A Hypnotism Drama”
Tourette survived the shot, but the incident was used by others to discredit and ridicule the therapeutic use of hypnosis. So it also damaged Tourette’s reputation, and worse, the experience had shaken him enough to mark the beginning of his becoming mentally unbalanced himself. Gradually, he began to suffer from depressions and manic moods himself.
This probably was not just caused by some kind of posttraumatic stress. Several of his colleagues suspected that Tourette was in fact developing “paretic dementia”, the dreaded mental illness caused by a sexually transmitted disease: by syphilis infecting the brain.
Ironically, in 1899 Tourette himself published an article on the advance of syphilis into neurosyphilis and insanity. Some wonder if by then he did recognize the symptoms in himself and if this perhaps worsened his depressions; we just don’t know.
Anyway, around that time Tourette’s behavior became ever more erratic and bizarre. He sometimes bothered people by following them on the street, and occasionally stole little items.
Newspapers began to write about “the deranged doctor” and in the end he lost his hospital job. Friends and family decided something had to be done.
On May 28, 1901 Tourette was lured into the Swiss Asile d’Aliénés de Cery (an insane asylum near Lausanne, Switzerland) under the pretense that some “famous patient” was waiting there for a consult with him. Once inside, he was involuntary committed.
The asylum staff observed he was suffering from “melancholia with suicidal tendencies” and “bouts of megalomania”. He was indeed diagnosed with “paretic neurosyphilis”.
The Cery asylum as it was built in 1873
Tourette became (not surprisingly) very agitated over his involuntary commitment, and after a few days had to be put in an isolation cell.
The next few years he was kept in this Swiss asylum, where at first he vainly kept writing letters pleading for his release. He began to lose his last shreds of sanity and became almost psychotic, with rambling speech and convulsions.
Three years later (May 22, 1904) he died in the asylum after an epileptic seizure. He was 46.
- If you like to read something written by Tourette in English, try this 1888 article in which he summarized his views on the therapeutic use of hypnosis: The Wonders of Animal Magnetism, as published in The North American Review, volume 146 (February 1888).
- Gilles de la Tourette was a prolific writer. Many of his works can now be found as e-books online. If you can read French, here are links to his most important studies:
● Études cliniques et physiologiques sur la marche : la marche dans les maladies du système nerveux : étudiée par la méthode des empreintes, 1886.
● L’hypnotisme et les états analogues au point de vue médico-légal : les etats hypnotiques et les etats analogues les suggestions criminelles cabinets de somnambules et sociétés de magnétisme et de spiritisme l’hypnotisme devant la loi, 1887.
● Traité clinique et thérapeutique de l’hystérie d’après l’enseignement de la Salpêtrière, 1891-1895: volume 1, volume 2, volume 3.
● Leçons de clinique thérapeutique sur les maladies du système nerveux, 1898.