The discovery of MS
Until the early years of the 19th century, physicians relied on superstition, hearsay, and the wisdom of the ancients to care for the sick. Medical ideas were not scientifically tested. Even so, physicians were sometimes good observers and we can identify people who undoubtedly had MS from descriptions written as long ago as the Middle Ages. MS has always been with us.
Once the scientific method took hold in medicine, MS was among the first diseases to be described scientifically. The 19th-century doctors did not understand what they saw and recorded, but drawings from autopsies done as early as 1838 clearly show what we today recognize as MS.
Then, in 1868, Jean-Martin Charcot, a professor of neurology at the University of Paris who has been called “the father of neurology,” carefully examined a young woman with a tremor of a sort he had never seen before. He noted her other neurological problems including slurred speech and abnormal eye movements, and compared them to other patients he had seen. When she died, he examined her brain and found the characteristic scars or “plaques” of MS.
Dr. Charcot wrote a complete description of the disease and the changes in the brain that accompany it. However, he was baffled by its cause and frustrated by its resistance to all of his treatments. These included electrical stimulation and strychnine—because this poison is a nerve stimulant. He also tried injections of gold and silver, as they were somewhat helpful in the other major nerve disorder common at that time—syphilis.