Biography of Oskar Vogt
Born in Schleswig-Holstein, Oskar Vogt was was half Danish, half German. He came from a line that included liberal Lutheran ministers, sea captains and a pirate. Cécile would quote Pierre Marie’s warning to think twice before marrying Vogt.
Already in the Gymnasium Vogt ha occupied himself with questions about the variations of animals in their environment, and with the process of inheritance. Vogt studied medicine at Kiel and Jena, obtaining his doctorate at Jena in 1894. In Jena, Vogt met the famous zoologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel, who encouraged Vogt to undertake phylogenetical (tribal-historical) studies.
He spent his internship and assistantship at Jena, with the Swiss neurologist, Auguste Forel (1848-1931) in the Burghölzli asylum in Zurich, and in Leipzig with the neurologist Paul Flechsig (1847-1929). He then moved to the Salpêtrière in Paris to study clinical neurology with Joseph Jules Dejerine (1849-1917) in 1898.
It was here he met his future wife, Mademoiselle Mugnier, who at that stage was working with Pierre Marie (1853-1940) at the Bicêtre. They married in Berlin in 1899 and began working together in a neurological laboratory which had been set up by Oskar the previous year, and which they supported from private practice. Many brains were sent to them by Pierre Marie who, following a heated argument on a point of anatomy, said “Monsieur Vogt, you need some brains to study!”
Oskar Vogt developed an intensive interest in localizing the "source of genius". This effort was crowned with a spectacular assignment in 1924, when he was one of the neurologists asked to consult on Lenin’s illness and obtained his brain for histological study after Lenin’s death. The brain of a murderer served as reference. Lenin's brain showed an enormous number of "giant cells", which Oskar Vogt saw as a sign of superior mental function. "The giant cells" were cortical pyramidal cells of unusual size. Considering the crimes committed by Lenin, it is an important question which brain should serve as reference. In 1925 he accepted an invitation to Moscow where he was assigned the establishment of an institute for brain research in Narkomsdraw, Moscow.
The circumstances around this as well as Vogt's popularity as a hypnotherapist make up the background for the fascinating novel Lenin's brain by Tilman Spengler.
From 1913 Oskar Vogt was professor in Berlin. As their work became better known, they were successful in establishing a neurological institute in 1915 – the Neurobiologisches Universitäts-Laboratoirum. In 1931, under the aegis of the Kaiser Wilhelm-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenchaften, an imposing institute – Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Hirnforschung - was opened for them in Buch, a suburb of Berlin. The institute was headed by Oskar, whilst Cécile attended to the anatomical department. Many distinguished researchers came to work in the institute, and, according to Klatzo, the first EEG recordings were made here. The institute was an imposing array of buildings, institutions, animals departments, including monkeys and other exotic animals.
Because of opposition to the Nazis Oskar Vogt was forced to retire from the directorship of his institute in 1936, but he and his wife had anticipated this and built a small private institute, the Institut für Hirnforschung und Allgemeine Biologie (”Institute for Brain Research and General Biology”), in the Schwarzwald – near Neustadt, which was opened already in 1937. This was financed – with one million dollar - by the Krupp family, because Vogt had defended a family member in court and his wife had been one of Vogts patients in hypnosis. The Rockefeller Foundation later donated one more million dollar.
Initially the Nazis left them alone but at the outbreak of war he was drafted into the army as a private and made to organise a military hospital in the area. Before directing the medical officers to their duties, he would cover his private’s uniform with a white gown. After six weeks he was discharged. He was then aged 69. During the war the couple took great risks through their anti-Nazi ideas. Once they held a Jewish paper editor and his family hidden. On one occasion Vogt is said to have pushed Goebbels down the stairs, after wanting to fire Jewish collaborators in the institute.
They studied the anatomy and pathology of the cerebral cortex, investigated extra-pyramidal diseases and made numerous contributions. They undertook physiological mapping of monkey brains which set the stage for Foerster’s electrical stimulation of the human brain. His wife made a number of important contributions to athetosis and they both published important works on the connections between the thalamus and corpus striatum. Together they studied genetic mutations occurring in insects.
Late in their career Cécile and Oskar Vogt became pioneers in schizophrenia research. In 1948 they formulated their observations of primary pathological changes in the thalamus of schizophrenics.
The Vogts were active in research almost to the end. Cécile Vogt died in 1962, aged 87, three years after the death of her husband at the age of 89.
Vogt was a compelling speaker and a well-versed conversationalist.
An honorary D. Sc. was conferred on Oskar Vogt by Oxford University; the public orator referring to him as “Nestor of Neurology,” was reminded of the poet Ennius who was declared to own three souls: Dr. Vogt, I think has the same number – for Jena taught him his anatomy; a famous Swiss neurologist, Auguste Forel, was his next instructor, and his clinical neurology was learned from the French, which also gave him his wife . . .”
Vogt was co-publisher of Journal für Psychologie und Neurologie, Leipzig.