Walther Spielmeyer

Born 1879-04-23
Died 1935

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German psychiatrist and neurologist, born April 23, 1879, Dessau; died 1935.

Biography of Walther Spielmeyer

Spielmeyer was the youngest of a large family. Living up to its name, which suggests ”fiddling”, Walther nearly failed grade school and was made to give up his piano lessons as a punishment. Studying medicine at Greifswald and Halle, he spent most of his student years at the latter university, where he was especially attracted to the pathologist Karl Joseph Eberth (1835-1926) and the psychiatrists Julius Eduard Hitzig (1838-1907) and Karl Heilbronner (1869-1914).

In 1906 he was appointed Privatdozent at Freiburg where he studied psychiatry under Alfred Hoche (1865-) and set up a laboratory on histopathology. He showed that amaurotic familial idiocy was the result of a disturbed lipid metabolism and demonstrated primary degeneration of the posterior columns and cerebral changes in a brilliant monograph on experimental trypanosomiasis. In 1911 he published his book on microscopic studies of the nervous system which became an important manual. As a result Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926) asked him to come to Munich to succeed Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915) and head the Anatomisches Laboratorium der Psychiatrischen- und Nervenklinik (the anatomical laboratories for the psychiratric and nervous disease clinic). He became extraordinarius in 1913 and director of the histology section of the newly founded Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Psychiatrie (German Institute for Psychiatric Research) in 1917 and honorary professor in 1918.

Spielmeyer wrote important monographs on peripheral nerve injuries which occurred in World War I. When Franz Nissl (1860-1919) came to Munich to head a second histopathology section, they had a very close and happy relationship. In 1922 he wrote an important book on histopathology of the nervous system which was the first textbook of general histopathology. Later on, Spielmeyer began to explore the possibility that disordered cerebral function could follow temporary circulation disturbances. In 1928 the Rockefeller Foundation financed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute with Spielmeyer as director of the Hirnpathologisches Institut (Institute of Brain Pathology) and there he remained until he died of pulmonary tuberculosis. He was succeeded by his able assistant and friend, Willibald Scholz (1889-1971).

Spielmeyer was a modest person, polished, and rather formal, but he had a fine sense of humour and was highly musical. He would join his daughter in singing Schubert, Brahms or Wolf to the piano accompaniment of his wife, and often would have musicians from the National Theatre in Munich at his home after a performance. He could be very outspoken in his dislike for pomposity and would be very sarcastic with regard to hypotheses which were not founded on solid scientific evidence. In his publications he never failed to give his disciples due credit. He had perhaps not the genius of a Nissl or an Alzheimer, but he was a perfectionist, and his knowledge of minute details in neuropathology was amazing.

His open denunciation of the Nazi regime brought him into great personal danger and he was said to have been tireless in his efforts to help Germans who had been displaced from Nazi Germany to enable them to start in other countries.

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