Jason Karlawish

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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History


In a 1976 Archives of Neurology essay, the neurologist Robert Katzman successfully argued for relabeling “senility” as “Alzheimer’s disease.” He urged rejecting various forms of dementia and senility as common consequences of aging, and accepting them as a disease requiring all the attention any other important disease deserves. Now medicine and society had a problem—"The Problem of Dementia,” the famed physician Lewis Thomas called it in a 1981 essay published by the popular magazine Discover, and he noted that, suddenly, “a disease of the century” had arisen (p. 3).

Forty years on, Jason Karlawish thinks there is still a problem, but in keeping with Katzman’s call, he refers to “The Problem with Alzheimer’s.” Based on the history he covers and the experiences he shares in this book, nothing of much significance has occurred since “The Problem of Dementia” became the “The Problem of Alzheimer’s.”

Karlawish is a physician who cares for people with Alzheimer’s and a researcher delving into “issues at the intersections of care, ethics, and policy” (p. 5).  He draws on his experiences in this book, which he describes as “the story of how once upon a time, Alzheimer’s disease was a rare disease, and then it became common, and then it turned into a crisis.” Karlawish wants to answer why during the time between Thomas’ essay and the year 2010, “nothing really changed,” and how that could be the case in “the richest and most powerful nation.” (p. 6) He tells this story in four parts.

The first part concentrates on efforts clinicians and researchers were making following Thomas’ call to distinguish Alzheimer’s disease from normal aging, other dementia types (e.g., frontotemporal, Lewy body), and precursor syndromes (e.g., minimal cognitive impairment). They were looking for definitive clinical patterns, imaging studies, diagnostic tests, and pathologic markers for the disease. 

In the second part, Karlawish goes back in time to when Alois Alzheimer first found what are known today as “plaques” in the brain of a patient who had an early onset of severe, progressive dementia. He traces the attention this finding drew to eventual advances in imaging and biochemistry aimed at diagnosis. Karlawish also covers how a cascade of events over the decades following Alois Alzheimer’s finding disrupted the pursuit of a pathophysiological basis for dementia. These events included the rise and dominance of Freudian psychology; followed by two world wars; the cold war; the overshadowing of AIDS; Medicare political and funding constraints; tussles among patient advocacy groups; loss of asylums where care and research had coexisted; clinical failure of the first drug; and the continued debate over whether dementia is a consequence of aging or is a disease. 

Karlawish moves on in the third and fourth parts to cover what “we will have to learn to live with the disease so as to improve the lives of persons...to provide the care they need to live well at home...and repair the broken system” (p. 171). Success in his view requires integrated biological, psychological, and social components. He reports the progress on each of these three fronts: some failed approaches continue to fail (such as drugs targeting amyloid); some psychological interventions show promise (though at times causing moral tension); some of the social configurations engineered for Alzheimer’s patients, families, caregivers, and society have produced triumphs and some disasters. He has much to say about why and how this search must go on, but with some much-needed course corrections. 

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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


Open Wound is a novel crafted from the extensive documents of an unsettling, little-known, yet remarkable episode in the history of medicine.

In the summer of 1822, Dr. William Beaumont was practicing medicine at a rugged military outpost on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, part of the Michigan territory.  His assignment as Assistant Surgeon, US Army represented about the best circumstances he could expect from his training as a medical apprentice without a university education.  In addition to soldiers and officers, Beaumont sometimes attended patients from the American Fur Company, whose warehouses shared the island's harbor.  On June 6, an accidentally discharged gunshot cratered the abdomen of an indentured, French-speaking Canadian trapper.  Fortunately for him, Beaumont served during the War of 1812 and knew how to care for devastating wounds.   With the surgeon's medical attention and willingness to house and feed the hapless trapper, Alexis St. Martin's body unexpectedly survived the assault.  But his wound didn't fully heal.  As a result, it left an opening in his flesh and ribs that allowed access to his damaged stomach.  Through the fistula, Beaumont dangled bits of food, collected "gastric liquor," and made unprecedented observations about the process of digestion.  

His clever and meticulously documented experiments, conducted on the captive St. Martin over several years, corrected prevailing assumptions about digestion.  Once thought to depend on grinding and putrification, normal digestion, Beaumont observed, was a healthy chemical process.  Any signs of putrification or fermentation indicated pathology.  In 1833 Beaumont published his thesis on the chemistry of digestion in Experiments and Observations of the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion.  Shortly before completing the book, he received a temporary leave from his military service to restart his research in Washington.  But to carry on his project, Beaumont had to persuade St. Martin-who entered and exited his physician-researcher's life several times before-to leave his growing family in Canada and once again become a research subject.  St. Martin does return, with pay, and briefly accepts his role.  But he also confronts Beaumont about whether the long confinement on Mackinac Island was more necessary for the patient's survival or the doctor's research agenda.  Or for the doctor's subsequently improved station in life. 

Although some of Beaumont's academically trained colleagues found fault with his methodologies, the farmer's son and frontier doctor did achieve a gratifying level of professional accomplishment and wealth.  To enjoy them, he had to set aside humiliations he experienced along the way, accept his lot after military service as an ordinary practitioner in St. Louis,  and weather an unforeseen turn near the end of life.    

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