Arnold Pick

Born 1851
Died 1924

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Czechoslovakian neurologist and psychiatrist, born July 20, 1851, Gross-Meseritsch, Mähren; died April 4, 1924.

Biography of Arnold Pick

Arnold Pick was born of German-Jewish parents in a village called Velké Meziricí (Gros-Meseritsch) in Moravia. He studied medicine at Vienna and as a student was assistant to the neurologist Theodor Hermann Meynert (1833-1892). He obtained his doctorate in 1875 and subsequently was assistant to Alexander Karl Otto Westphal (1863-1941) in Berlin, at the same time as Karl Wernicke (1848-1905) worked in that unit. All three of them influenced Pick's work on aphasia. Late 1875 Pick left Berlin for the position as second physician in the Grossherzogliche Oldenburgische Irrenheilanstalt in Wehnen. This institution later played a disreputable part in the German politics of euthanasia, which began in the 1920s and culminated with mass murders and sterilisations of the “racially inferior” and “unworthy lives”.

In 1877 Pick was appointed physician to the Landesirrenanstalt in Prague, the "Katerinke". Pick became Dozent in psychiatry and neurology in 1878 at the University of Prague. In 1880 he became the director of a new mental hospital in Dobran. Six years later he was appointed professor of psychiatry (hence neurology) and head of the psychiatric clinic at the German University in Prague. This was a time of much political and social disturbances and upheaval. The university was located in the kingdom of Bohemia, while the academical teaching, both at the German and Czech universities, was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian empire. The province and the state were frequently at odds, especially as the Czechs, who made up the majority of the population of Bohemia, were engaged in a struggle to break loose from the old monarchy.

Both universities claimed their descent from the institution founded by Charles IV (1316-1378) in 1348, the first university in central Europe to possess the same rights and liberties as did the universities of Paris and Bologna. As a cultural and medical centre, Prague was second only to Vienna.

Among the university’s medical facilities, the baroque psychiatric hospital was particularly overcrowded and ill adapted to the maintenance of even the most primitive hygiene.

In the German part of the asylum, which had formerly been the monastery of St. Catherine, there was a problem of having German professors teaching German students in German, while almost all of the patients spoke only Czech. Finding German assistants who could speak Czech was one of Pick’s problems: "The surgeon has an easy life, all he needs to do is asking: - Does it hurt? – “Bolì to? - but to examine the patients mind the way we were meant to do demands a lot more". Another problem was in getting neurological case material: for teaching purposes patients had to be “borrowed” from other departments.

Pick undertook extensive pathological studies of patients with neuropsychiatric diseases, and his work on the cortical localization of speech disturbances and other functions of the brain won him international acclaim. In addition to more than 350 publications, many of them on apraxia and agrammatism, Pick wrote a textbook on the pathology of the nervous system.

Pick's ability to record the history of a psychotic or even mute patient was legendary. His secretary was a manic-depressive and an inmate of the asylum in which he worked.

Pick was an intelligent, principled, dignified and cultured man who was said to be modest almost to a fault. He corresponded with many of the leading figures of his time, including Joseph Jules Dejerine (1849-1917), Pierre Marie (1853-1940), Henry Head (1861-1940), Fulgence Raymond (1844-1910), Ernst Adolf Gustav Gottfried von Strümpell (1853-1925), and above all, John Hughlings Jackson (1835-1911). He also had a large circle of friends, among them the philosopher Friedrich Jodl (1849-1914), the philologist Sauer, the physicist Ernst Mach (1838-1916), and Johann Graf Gleispach (1840-1906) the jurist.

Pick was a close associate of the professor of medicine at the same university, Otto Kahler. Together they had worked out what in 1880 became known as Kahler-Pick law. It concerned the respective arrangement of incoming posterior root fibres in the posterior columns of the spinal cord. An ingenious injection technique enabled them to demonstrate that the fibres at higher levels displace to progressively more medial planes those that enter at lower levels.

Pick collected an enormous library which gave him great pleasure. At his home they reached to the ceiling and were piled on the floor. When he started on a vacation, some volumes of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Thomas Carlyle went into the large case of medical books. He was also a great music lover.

Arnold Pick died of septicaemia in 1924, 73 years old, following a bladderstone-operation.

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