Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Learning from Alzheimer's Disease

Learning from Alzheimer's Disease

A History of Biomedical Models of Mental Illness




The project "Learning from Alzheimer's Disease. A history of biomedical models of mental illness integrates approaches from the history of science and the philosophy of medicine and psychiatry to study how biomedical knowledge about mental illness has been formed and transformed throughout the long 20th century.

At the heart of "Learning from Alzheimer's disease" is a single question: how have conclusions about a particular neurodegenerative disorder been co-opted into generalising claims on the limitations and potentials for biomedical models of mental illnesses? By interrogating and historicizing these claims it inverts idealised stories of progress about medical knowledge into local histories of learning.

This focus forms the entry point for the project's elaboration of new ways of historizing disorder and disease that take into account both the heterogeneity of biomedical research and the historical contingency of medical knowledge more generally. To this end, a junior research group has been established that brings in further case studies, extending the focus of the project beyond Alzheimer's disease and psychiatry.

The group is directed by Dr. Lara Keuck and since 2015 has received funding from the Society in Science - The Branco Weiss Fellowship, administered by ETH Zürich.


People and Case Studies


Lara Keuck studied Molecular Biomedicine in Bonn, later receiving her doctorate in the History, Philosophy and Ethics of Medicine from the University of Mainz within a German-French doctoral programme with the ENS Paris in 2012. She worked at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and the Department of Philosophy at HU Berlin before taking up the Branco Weiss Fellowship to establish a junior research group at the Department of History at HU Berlin. Her research project follows Alzheimer's disease from its first description in 1906 until today. She is particularly interested in how and why anchors to past descriptions of the disease have been maintained throughout the many reconfigurations of the disease in the long twentieth century. 


Together with the assistance of Christof Sendhardt (ended March 2018) and Seraphina Rekowski (since March 2018), Lara Keuck also studies the establishment of the Pew Biomedical Scholars Oral History Program in the late 1980s. In the sub-project 'Documenting "the future history of biomedical science"' they trace the Program's oscillating documentation strategies that jostled between "writing and making history while it happens" and providing the blueprint provide for a historiography yet to come. In doing so they elucidate the origin of the Pew oral history interviews as historical sources as well as reflecting on the role of historiographic arguments and practices in the formation of biomedical sciences. Lara Keuck has also co-taught with Prof. Anke te Heesen two courses on Oral History (History of Oral History and Science and Democracy 1989/90).

Christof Sendhardt received his Masters in the History of Science and Technology from the Technical University Berlin, where he completed his thesis on the animal disease research institute on the island Riems. The thesis (supervised by Prof. Friedrich Steinle and Dr. Lara Keuck) focused on the relationship between biomedical research and its places by showing how the island was transformed into a landscape for the containment of infectious diseases and how this process shaped the research on laboratory animals in turn. 


The project “alternative medicine in a biomedical context” moves in another direction and brings together the opposing fields of biomedical research and alternative medicine. In her contribution to the anthology “Auf der Suche nach einer anderen Medizin - Psychosomatik im 20. Jahrhundert” Lara Keuck discussed the particularly ambivalent role of disease classification for the psychosomatic field that simultaneously functions as a critique and as a normal part of the health care system. Based on this study, Seraphina Rekowski wants to examine in her master’s thesis how the relationship between alternative healing methods and biomedicine was formed in the institutionalization of alternative medicine during the 20th century. Beyond a simple comparison, we are interested in the possibilities of productive co-existence in what at first glance appears to be conflicting collaboration.


Alfred Freeborn, trained in History, Philosophy and Sociology of Science, Technology and Medicine at University of Cambridge, works as a pre-doctoral research fellow in the group, and is researching his PhD thesis on 'Forgetting Functional Psychosis'. This sub-project focuses on the role of neuroimaging research in generating anticipatory narratives of success in the search for brain diseases in schizophrenia research. The study shows how narratives of immanent breakthroughs and innovative technologies united groups of radiologists, neuroscientists and psychiatrists in the representation of both real and potential biological aetiologies for mental illnesses.


Taken together, the sub-projects span more than a century, and look at different types of sources, actors, places, and objects of research. The group is united by a distinct historical epistemological interest that aims at the elucidation of the history of current understandings of disease and disorder. We welcome guests and visitors, who are interested in such questions, to join us in our group meetings.