Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel


Famous scholars from Kiel:

Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt


As first Rector after the war, the neurologist and brain scientist pressed ahead with rebuilding the university in Kiel. Professor Jörn Henning Wolf reports.


There are various links between clinical neuropathologist Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt and Kiel University. Born in Harburg in 1885, he completed the clinical part of his medical studies in Kiel from 1906 to 1908 and was awarded the doctorate of the Faculty of Medicine and a licence to practise medicine in 1909. After qualifying as a ship's doctor at the Bernhard Nocht Institute in Hamburg and long periods away at sea, he decided to become a brain scientist. From 1912 to 1920, interrupted by service as a navy medical officer in the First World War, he received excellent training in neuroanatomy at leading neuropathological research centres in Frankfurt am Main, Wroclaw and Munich.

In 1913, Creutzfeldt studied the clinical picture and pathological brain changes of a previously unknown disease in a patient at Wroclaw University Neurology Unit, which was led by Alois Alzheimer. His publication of a description of this disease in 1920 was the first in the world's medical literature, approximately a year before Alfons Maria Jakob published three similar cases. The name of this disease, "Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease", which was introduced into professional circles in 1922 and is still used in many different languages today, commemorates the simultaneous and independent discovery of a progressive brain disease by these two doctors. In 1920, probably because of his groundbreaking research achievements, Creutzfeldt was appointed Specialist Registrar (erster Assistenzarzt) at Kiel Psychiatry and Neurology Unit under founding director Ernst Siemerling. He was awarded his postdoctoral lecturing qualification in the same year. Creutzfeldt spent the next four years training to be a clinical neuropathologist and succeeded, also for the first time, in describing the clinical pictures of two other inflammatory diseases of the brain. In 1924, he moved to the Psychiatry and Neurology Unit of Friedrich Wilhelm University at Charité in Berlin, where he worked as Lead Associate Specialist (Oberassistenzarzt) and Director of the Neuroanatomy Laboratory under famous psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer. In 1938, Creutzfeldt returned to Kiel for the Chair of Psychiatry and Neurology at CAU and became Director of the Kiel Neurology Unit.

During the years spent in Berlin at the beginning of the Third Reich and his subsequent time in Kiel, Creutzfeldt adopted a reserved but not completely hostile attitude to the National Socialist Party and Government; he was a registered candidate for the National Socialist German Doctors' Association, a paying member of the SS and Deputy Medical Assessor at Berlin High Court of Hereditary Health, which made final decisions on compulsory sterilisation. In his role as a doctor and university lecturer, Creutzfeldt was, on the whole, inconspicuous politically with no emotional attachment to the NS ideology. He neither opposed it nor did he offend its proponents. His attitude towards NS crimes against the mentally ill is conflicting. He did not categorically reject compulsory sterilisation in the reports he was required to produce and accepted that chronically ill patients who were unavoidably transferred to state hospitals for long-term treatment faced the threat of being sent to death camps for the NS euthanasia programme. In fact, of 605 patients transferred from his clinic, 135 were deported. 65 of these are known to have been murdered but the true figure is likely to be over 100.

CAU is still indebted to Creutzfeldt for his determined and successful efforts as first post-war Rector in bringing the university, which had spread to 18 temporary sites across the region towards the end of the war, back to its original location in Kiel. He also accomplished a feat of great social importance in obtaining consent to use four training ships from a former German Navy fleet, which had been used, in part, as minesweepers, to house 900 students and 50 university lecturers during the winter and spring of 1945/1946. These achievements are all the more astonishing given that Creutzfeldt incurred the wrath of the University Officer of the British occupying forces for allowing far more former officers returning from the war to register at the university than the military government would tolerate; Creutzfeldt was quickly and prematurely removed from his position as Rector.

Until he was given emeritus status in 1953, Creutzfeldt spent his later years in office restoring the operating efficiency of Kiel University Neurology Unit and preparing to rebuild the parts that had been destroyed during the war.

Emotions were more than stirred by a parliamentary procedure to obtain information instituted in 1961/1962 and triggered by Creutzfeldt. In 1954, he exposed the former medical director of the euthanasia programme, Professor Werner Heyde, who was working as an expert witness in Schleswig-Holstein under the pseudonym Dr Fritz Sawade, to the authorities. In the end, however, Creutzfeldt shied away from reporting this wanted man to the police. The procedure and his incipient geriatric illness overshadowed the final years of his life, which from 1953 he spent in Munich. This made the personal accolade of Honorary Senator bestowed on him by CAU in 1955 all the more pleasing for him.

Creutzfeldt died on 30th December 1964 at the age of 80. Whilst contemporaries of the man whose actions were not infrequently driven by professional vanity saw him as a self-assured gentleman, according to a self-portrait in the "Kieler Nachrichten" newspaper in 1952, he personally believed psychiatry to be "a dangerous profession because it can easily lead to arrogance and, on the other hand, to scepticism. Wisdom lies in the middle, in humility".


Jörn Henning Wolf



Professor Jörn Henning Wolf studied the life and scientific works of Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt intensively. In 2003 the former Director of the Institute for History of Medicine and Pharmacy published a paper on the famous neurologist and neuroscientist: Jörn Henning Wolf: Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt (1885-1964) – Klinischer Neuropathologe und Mitbegründer der biologischen Psychiatrie, Hamburg 2003.

Photo: Universitäts-Nervenklinik Kiel, Archive (Prof. Dr. K. Christiani)


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