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July 13, 2012Posted in: News & Information Tagged:

The Man Behind the Name: Gilles de la Tourette’s Story

How much do you know about the man for whom Tourette Syndrome is named? Most people don’t realize that Gilles was not his first name; it was actually a part of his last name. The French neurologist was born Georges Albert Édouard Brutus Gilles de la Tourette on October 30th, 1857. At age 16, he started medical school in Poitiers, France. His mother wouldn’t let him study in Paris because she thought that the city of love had too many temptations for young Georges. Gilles de la Tourette’s main role model was a physician name Dr. Renaudot. During his career, Renaudot initiated a system of free medical consultations for the poor and published the very first French “self-diagnosis” handbook. To honour Renaudot, Gilles de la Tourette wrote a biography of his life and used the proceeds to erect a statue of him on the Ile de la Cite. In 1884, Gilles de la Tourette, now an active physician, began to examine paroxysmal motor disorders. He hypothesized that “latah,” “myriachit,” and the “jumpers” were all the result of the same underlying condition and were not related to chorea (another movement disorder involving one side of the body), and he published a detailed account of several patients including the Marquise de Dampierre. Georges met her when she was 50. She had been the first documented case of Tourette Syndrome in the medical literature, described by another physician in 1825 when she was much younger. The Marquise, a noblewoman, had involuntary twitches, movements and vocalizations (modern day corprolahia and echolalia). Sadly, she was forced to live in seclusion although she lived to be 85. In his account, Georges noted that all of these patients had similar symptoms, that the symptoms persisted over time and that the utterances were often in “stark contrast” to the patients’ upbringing and background. He theorized that this must be a progressive hereditary condition, titling the article “Maladie des Tics.” In doing so, he started a debate in the medical community about the origin of TS. The debate was not settled until the early 1970s, when the father of modern tic disorder research, Arthur Shapiro and his wife, Elaine, finally succeeded in persuading the media and the medical community that TS was neurological rather than psychological. Charcot, a colleague, later renamed the syndrome “Gilles de la Tourette’s illness” in his honor. Gilles de la Tourette’s talents were not limited to medicine and science. He worked as the drama critic for the journal “La Revue Hebdomadaire” and published his articles under the pseudonym, Paracelsus. The choice of name was intentional. Paracelsus was a Roman encyclopaedist who wrote “De Medicine,” the primary source for information on diet, pharmacy and surgery in Ancient Rome. According to co-worker Paul Legendre, Georges’ supervisors passed him over for promotion many times due to his singular devotion to studying neurological disorders at the expense of other fields of pathology. While Georges is best known today for his article on TS, he actually made greater and more significant contributions to our knowledge of hysteria and hypnotism. In 1893, one of Georges’ hypnotized patients shot him in the neck. Though he did not sustain serious injuries, the event disproved his hypothesis that a hypnotized person could not commit a crime. The incident got a lot of negative press coverage and did a lot of damage to Georges’ reputation as a doctor and scientist. Gilles de la Tourette did not let this stop him. He rose to prominence again later in his career when he began doing work in forensic medicine. In 1900, he received the position of Chief Medical Officer at the Paris Exhibition (1900). Unfortunately, in the following year, he began to suffer from dementia and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Switzerland. Historians describe Georges as highly intelligent though very irritable. He is said to have refused to concede any point in an argument. One of Georges’ teachers wrote, “Despite this abrasive and capricious temperament, Gilles da la Tourette gained considerable respect from a number of his pupils.” Georges shared this high opinion of himself. He once declared that he was one of the best doctors in the world exclaiming, “that’s why they will erect a statue in my honor!” Sorry Georges, no statue so far. However, in the words of author Uitgeverij Van Gorcum, Tourette Syndrome “is probably the most lasting monument to this talented neurologist and psychiatrist.” Gilles de la Tourette died on May 22, 1904 at age 47. In 2009, scholars translated his obituary into English. It lists Georges’ numerous accomplishments and publications, and notes that, “…this brief list of the achievements of Gilles de la Tourette…permits us a glimpse into the breadth and significance of his work….[his clinic] is in a position to pursue the spreading of scientific and artistic work, and will, as a matter of honor, continue to do so.” If you could, would you want to meet and talk with Gilles de la Tourette?

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  6. Yes, I would have loved to have met Gilles de la Tourette, I have a lot of questions for him.

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