Share Share this page

25 Years Before Alzheimer's Disease - Ralph Waldo Emerson





(Ralph Waldo Emerson)


“Night-dreams trace on Memory's wall

Shadows of the thoughts of day,

And thy fortunes, as they fall,

The bias of the will betray”.


“Memory is a primary and fundamental faculty, without which none other can work; the cement, the bitumen, the matrix in which the other faculties are imbedded; or it is the thread on which the beads of man are strung, making the personal identity which is necessary to moral action. Without it all life and thought were an unrelated succession. As gravity holds matter from flying off into space, so memory gives stability to knowledge; it is the cohesion which keeps things from falling into a lump, or flowing in waves…”

(Ralph Waldo Emerson – "Memory")


Alzheimer’s disease was first discovered in 1907 by Dr. Alois Alzheimer, but was not considered a major disease or disorder until the 1970s. Dr. Alzheimer documented the case of Auguste D., a woman in her fifties who exhibited pronounced cognitive disorders of her memory, language, and areas of social interaction.

After Auguste D.’s death, Dr. Alzheimer performed an autopsy on her brain. He found unusual formations, in the form of protein plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Alzheimer theorized that these plaques and tangles might be the cause or effect of some unnamed disease. The disease was later named for Dr. Alzheimer as more people were found to have similar symptoms and physical findings matching Dr. Alzheimer’s case results.

Before Dr. Alzheimer's 1907 case report, scientists and the non-science community both viewed forms of "dementia" as a "natural" progression of age, and "senility" was thought to be a normal part of aging.

When looking into the lives of prominent persons prior to the date of 1907, it becomes readily apparent that history reflects on the lives and deaths of many who had symptoms similar to those first described by Dr. Alzheimer’s. Even Shakespeare’s “King Lear” (1608-1623) has an excellent description of what appears to be an early day case of Alzheimer’s…the literature of the ages is replete with such mention.

The death of the renowned poet and the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson is recorded in 1882. Emerson's death is a full 25 years before Dr. Alois Alzheimer's made his discovery of the the disease named after him. Emerson's memory problems and other symptoms as recorded in his last years very clearly suggest his death resulted from Alzheimer's. This is one of the more excellent examples of such recorded evidence that can be found of early day Alzheimer’s cases.


 Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on 25 May 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts. Emerson’s death is recorded as 27 April 1882 at Concord, Massachusetts with burial at “Sleepy Hollow Cemetery” also at Concord, Massachusetts. The cause of death is listed as “Pneumonia” He died just a month short of his 79th birthday. The normal life expectancy for those born in the middle 1800’s was only 38 years, Emerson did very well by living to an age of almost 79 years. Since Alzheimer’s disease was not at that time recognized as a disease, it would not have been listed as a cause of death. However, it should be noted that Pneumonia and particularly “Aspiration Pneumonia” is one of the most common of the Alzheimer’s complications causing death.

Ralph was the fourth child in a family of eight. Three the children were said to have  “evidence of extraordinary mental powers.” He was also said to have been raised in an atmosphere of hard work and of moral discipline. In 1817, Emerson entered Harvard College, and graduated in 1821. As a student he ranked in the middle of his class. In literature and  in oratory, Emerson did much better, receiving a Boylston prize for declamation, and two Bowdoin prizes for dissertations. He was fond of reading and of writing verse, and was chosen as the poet for class-day. He was described with a “cheerful serenity of manner, tranquil mirthfulness, and the steady charm of personality”* rendering him a favorite with his fellow classmates. With this background, it is little wonder that Emerson evolved into one of the most loved of all poets. * (NNDB Profile 2012)

Seven of his Emerson’s ancestors were ministers of New England churches. His father was the Rev. William Emerson, minister of the First Church (Unitarian) in Boston.

For a time beginning in 1825, he turned to the ministry as a career. In 1825 he entered divinity school at Cambridge, where he sought to prepare himself for the Unitarian pulpit. In October 1826 he was "appointed to preach" by the Middlesex Association of Ministers. While he did some preaching until 1847, this vocation did not provide the satisfaction that he expected or intended. His career later evolved into that of a noted Poet, lecturer and essayist as detailed below.

As a Protestant Christian of the Lutheran denomination, I have trouble understanding Emerson’s theology with it’s core of “Transcendentalism” and do not embrace it as my own. Perhaps if one searches most religions, one can find areas of doctrinal statements that have an air of beauty. Without trying to test the logic of the statement, I find beauty in this “Transcendentalist” thought.: “All things are connected to God and, therefore, all things are divine.”…


 Marriage - Family - Community


Ellen Tucker

(Ellen Louise Tucker)


 On 30 September 1829, Ralph Waldo Emerson married his wife Ellen Louise Tucker.

They had met on Christmas Day 1827.

She was already quite sick with the disease of Tuberculosis that would later take her life.

One of her brothers had already died of the disease. She would occasionally cough up blood.

The couple must have known that they would not have much time together.

Their's was one of the great love affairs of history...

One of Emerson's daily journal entries (17 January 1829) described Ellen as: "She has the purity and confiding Religion of an Angel."


Emerson's later entry of 21 July 1829 reads: "Oh Ellen, I do dearly love you."

It was less then two years later on 8 February 1831 that he lost his wife Ellen to Tuberculosis at just under the age of 20. Ellen's DYING WORDS WERE:

  "I have not forgot the peace and joy"


This event was said to be a “sorrow that deeply depressed him in health and spirits.”  He visited Ellen's grave daily. His world for a time, literally fell apart. He was described as "unstrung, debilitated by grief." He wrote a short poem describing his feelings of loss:


"The days pass over me

and I am still the same.

The Aroma of my life is gone.

Like the flower with which it came."


Gradually he resumed his normal life...Four (4) years later in 1835, he married for the 2nd time to Lydia Jackson of Plymouth. They spent the remainder of their married life and his life in their home at Concord where he was said to have been a “devoted husband and a wise father.” (Ralph and Lydia had four children together. (Waldo, Ellen, Edith and Edward.) At the suggestion of Lydia, one of the girl children was named after his first wife Ellen. Ralph's pet name for Lydia was "Queenie".

In addition to poetry, Emerson was noted as a powerful essayist, lecturer and author on philosophical, social and religious topics. He enjoyed a most distinguished lifetime. He became known as the "Sage of Concord" during his many and final years as a resident in the town of Concord. 

In 1857, Emerson wrote an essay entitled “Memory”. It was ironical that Emerson’s own memory would falter and die in the last 10 years of his life.

Emerson was very active in community and local affairs and became a very beloved member of the Concord community.

Among Emerson’s many literary friends was Henry David Thoreau who is probably best known for his book “Walden” (1854) and the story of living in a small cabin on Walden’s Pond. Few people know that the cabin and pond were owned by Emerson and made available as a place for Thoreau to live. Thoreau was also at times a resident in the Emerson household in Concord and was often referred to by Emerson as his “best friend”.

Emerson's latter years were said to have passed in peaceful honor. In 1866 Harvard College conferred upon him the degree of LL.D., and in 1867 he was elected an overseer. In 1870 he delivered a course of lectures before the university on "The Natural History of the Intellect."


The Arrival of Alzheimer's

Emerson’s memory problems were said to have an origin as early as the summer of 1871 or in the spring of 1872. By the end of the decade his memory became so bad that he did not remember his own name at times.

In 1872 he was reported to have started noting “a failure in his powers, especially in his memory” In spite of this change in his mental capacity his character was reported to have remained “serene and unshaken in dignity”.

Emerson's home in Concord caught fire on July 24, 1872. Donations were collected by friends to help the Emerson’s rebuild the remains of the home.  Support for shelter was offered as well; and the Emerson’s ended staying with family at the “Old Manse” until the family home was rebuilt. The fire along with his memory problems brought an end to most of Emerson’s lecturing career. From that point on, Emerson would lecture only on special occasions and only in front of groups of friends and others that he was comfortable being with.

Emerson was said by the family to have accepted what was happening to him. "He suffered very little," said his son Edward, "took nourishment well. ... He went to his study and tried to work, accomplished less and less, but did not notice it." Two weeks before he died, Emerson was said to still have a smile, although he could not any longer spell "Concord," the town where he had spent most of his life. By accepting his illness, it was thought by some that Emerson avoided many of its terrible side effects, such as the loneliness and bitterness that consumed others.

Editorial Note: While this is an interesting theory of why things went relatively well for Emerson in his last days, it is more correct to say it is evidence of what little we know about this disease. It is well known that in the late stages of the disease, the victim commonly does not even recall that he has the disease and does not know what is happening to him. Fear is normally a constant companion to the middle to late stage victims of the disease, and most do not recognize family members.

By 1879, the problems with his memory had become so embarrassing to Emerson that he stopped all of his public appearances. As his friend Holmes wrote,

"Emerson is afraid to trust himself in society much, on account of the failure of his memory and the great difficulty he finds in getting the words he wants. It is painful to witness his embarrassment at times"

His final days were reported to be: “Steadily, tranquilly, cheerfully, he finished the voyage of life”* (NNDB Profile 2012)

It would appear from this history that his Alzheimer’s ran a course in Emerson’s life of approx. 10 years. (1871/72-1882). The average is 8 years. President Reagan also survived for 10 years. My wife June struggled with Alzheimer’s  for almost 12 years. My good friend Dr. Don Fox's wife Gloria went for a very long 15 years.


In a story “The Forgetting,” (PBS, 2010) commented on Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Alzheimer’s. “In the last years of his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson was so wracked by senility that the renowned author could not even pen his own name. Oddly, he seemed to accept the loss of what most would consider his greatest asset, his mind. Amidst the disease he told a friend, "I have lost my mental faculties but am perfectly well." On the day of this comment and on other days, Emerson was said to have had pie before breakfast.


The New York Times on April 2nd, 2002 published and article “A Conversation with David Shenk” in which he discussed Ralph Waldo Emerson: “In the late early stages, he was still doing a lot of lectures. Yet he was unable to write anything new and dusted off his old works. One of the essays he read at this time was ''Memory,'' while his memory was so shot that he couldn't remember one word to the next.


Phillip Manning writing an article: “A History of Alzheimer’s Disease” for the “News & Observer”, 23 September 2001 refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson. “When he was 63 (1866) years old, Ralph Waldo Emerson was still vigorous in body…Unlike most of us, he did not flinch from…reality. Instead, he wrote a poem called "Terminus," (1867) which began: "It is time to be old/to take in sail."

Editorial Note: It has been suggested that the writing of “Terminus” was Emerson’s recognition of his own failing mentality. I think not. In reviewing the huge production of poems and essays by Emerson in 1867 would indicated his mentality was still functioning at a high level. It is my thought that the poem is simply an Emerson philosophical poem based on an expected old age slow down. 

“A few years later,  Editorial note: 15 years later is not a few years later! The date of the funeral was March 1882.  Emerson attended the funeral of his longtime friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “The gentleman who lies here," Emerson reportedly said, "was a beautiful soul, but I have forgotten his name."

(Editorial Note: Emerson himself died just a month later in 1882. Manning’s historical perspective is clearly faulty.)


There is an episode with Emerson’s good friend Mark Twain that took place in December 1877. This would have been at a midway point in Emerson’s journey through Alzheimer’s. The incident took place in Boston at the Hotel Brunswick. Twain was making a presentation to a group that included Emerson. Twain was telling a story of in which he was spinning a yarn that was intended to poke some harmless fun at his friend Emerson. Twain was considered to be a master of the “spoof”. On this occasion however his material fell flat. Twain received only silence and quizzical looks, and this was most apparent from Emerson himself. Afterward, he sent a letter of apology to Emerson.

It was then that Twain learned that Emerson had been present only in body, not in mind. Emerson’s dead silence and quizzical look Twain later learned from Emerson’s daughter Ellen was simply that her father had not understood a word of what Twain was saying.

"To my father," Ellen wrote to Twain of the performance, "it is as if it had not been; he never quite heard, never quite understood it, and he forgets easily and entirely."


Stan’s Final Comments: I think that it is both interesting and perhaps a bit unusual that Emerson wrote so much about “Memory” and to then find in his later years that his own memory was destroyed. Much of my life I have observed Emerson’s admonitions found in this memory related quote. This quote was first brought to my attention by a best friend:


Time dissipates to shining ether the solid angularity of facts.”


It is one of my favorite and time honored Emerson quotes. I have referenced it to some of the grandchildren in connection with the value of keeping good records and in particular, family related records. I have used it to make a point with accident investigators in prompting investigations to preserve the facts before time removes important remembrances. Certainly in my forensic work I very much abided by this Emerson bit of wisdom.



Stan's Note (10/2020) Since page was first created Aug. 2012, approx. 20,600 persons have visited the page.




  June's Passing

June 1994


June had battled Alzheimer's for almost 12 years when God took her home on 23 October 2008.  June's funeral notice as published in the Minneapolis Star in October 2008 can be seen on this website under the "In Memoriam" label - or Click on:


"June K. (Rolstad) Berg - In Memoriam"