Killing Dr. Tourette


1893 was not Gilles de la Tourette’s year.


Not only was he devastated by the death of his son Jean to meningitis but also by the loss of his mentor, the prominent neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, to a lung disease shortly afterward. Sadly, there was even more to come for the internationally recognized neurologist.

On December 6, a young woman, dressed in black, rang the doorbell at the Rue de l’Universite apartment building where Dr. Tourette lived. His valet told her that the doctor was out but she insisted on waiting for him. After about fifteen minutes, Tourette returned from seeing a patient at a local hospital and she immediately confronted him in his consulting room. The woman, Rose Kamper, had been one of his patients at the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospitaland demanded money from him for “ruining her life”. He recognized that she was emotionally disturbed and offered to have her readmitted to hospital under his care. After she failed to reply, Tourette got up to leave the room when the woman took out a revolver and shot him in the back of the neck.

Rose Kamper made no attempt at escape after the shooting and simply sat in the hall until the police came. She reportedly muttered, “I know, that what I just have done was wrong, but it was necessary and now I am satisfied. At least one of them has now paid for the others (the other doctors who had treated her).”  While her victim’s injury wasn’t life-threatening, an attempt made on the life of one of the most prominent physicians in Paris certainly made news.

Police later found that Rose had nothing in her possession but a series of newspaper clippings about hysteria (which was still a new medical term a the time). As more details became known, her story was gradually pieced together.  Her mental problems had begun several years before and led to her being placed under Dr. Tourette’s care. As she told the psychiatrists who later examined her, “Within me there are actually two different people, one physical and one intellectual, my thoughts no longer belong only to me, but also to those, who possess me. During the day my intellect allows me to resist the powers which enter me without my knowledge, but at night I am overpowered”. She apparently believed that Tourette and the other doctors at the Salpetriere had caused her mental illness through hypnosis.

Tourette’s mentor, Jean-Martin Charcot, had pioneered the medical use of hypnosis in treating the emotional condition that he first termed “hysteria”. In his Salpetriere clinic, Charcot’s research on the many female patients who had been sent to him for treatment had made him famous across Europe. Charcot went on to train a generation of neurologists and psychiatrists in his techniques (including Tourette and Sigmund Freud, among others) but there was still considerable controversy over what hypnosis represented.  As a result of this controversy, Rose Kamper’s trial quickly became a test of dueling theorists who argued about the very nature of hypnosis itself.   Rose maintained that Tourette and the other Salpetriere doctors had hypnotized her against her will and her defense attorney even argued that the hypnosis had somehow caused the shooting. Following a sensational trial, the judge eventually ruled that hypnosis had nothing to do with Rose Kamper’s actions and she was declared insane

Although Dr. Tourette recovered physically from the shooting, the emotional impact would linger. Rose Kamper’s testimony and the heavy newspaper coverage of the trial damaged his professional reputation. Despite his fame as a physician and numerous honours, his condition began deteriorating with fluctuating episodes of depression, mania and mental confusion. By 1901, he was forced to give up his medical practice as his behaviour became increasingly bizarre. Alarmed over Tourette’s worsening condition and threats of suicide, his family and colleagues made arrangements for him to travel to Lucerne, Switzerland for a rest. On May 28, 1901, he was called to a psychiatric hospital near Lausanne, supposedly to see a patient. Once there, Tourette was forcibly admitted and kept for treatment. His family had arranged for him to be held in a Swiss hospital because they were afraid of the publicity that would have followed his receiving psychiatric treatment in France.

Records still exist showing Tourette’s outrage over being held in the psychiatric hospital and the forced restraints that were used to keep him there. Despite numerous letters to various medical and government officials protesting his treatment, he would never leave. Over time, he became increasingly psychotic with rambling speech and convulsions. Tourette eventually died on May 22, 1904 with his wife and surviving children being at his side. While the actual cause of death is still unclear, neurosyphilis has been advanced as one possibility (it was common enough at the time). Whatever the medical reason, Gilles de la Tourette’s death at the age of 46 ended a remarkable medical career. Despite his research contributions, he is primarily remembered today for the developmental tic disorder that bears his name.

Ironically, Rose Kamper probably fared better than the man she shot.  After her sentencing, she was housed in different hospitals before being sent to an “Institute for the Insane” in Villejuif, France. She was later moved to another asylum after she stabbed a nurse with a fork.  Following Rose’s escape from the asylum in 1910, police launched an intense manhunt due to fears over her violent history. She was eventually found by police living under her maiden name of Lecoq and working as a seamstress. Since she appeared relatively stable, her doctors allowed her to live in the community despite later readmissions to psychiatric hospitals. She eventually died in 1955 at the age of 92.

Romeo Vitalli is a Canadian psychologist and the author of the forthcoming 
“The Everything Guide to Overcoming PTSD.” He blogs over at Providentia,  where this post first appeared. 

Leave a Reply