Constantin, Freiherr von Economo: 1876-1931

[The portrait stamp is ANK1536: 23/8/1976.]

Constantin Economo was a pioneer in a field of research founded by Theodor Meynert (1833-1892) in Vienna: the study of the human brain. He originated from one of Triest's most distinguished and richest families, was an outstanding athlete and spoke Greek, French, Italian and German from his earliest youth. He was born on 21st August 1876 at Braila, the son of Johann Economo (1834-1921), a rich Greek industrialist who was made an Imperial baron in 1904, and of the latter's wife Helene Murati (1848-1923). The boy was educated at the German Grammar School in Trieste and thence went to the Vienna Technical High School to study engineering and aviation technology. However, in 1895 he decided to read medicine instead and he became a doctor of medicine in 1902. After making a long study journey throughout Europe and elsewhere, he remained for a year in Paris, where he came in direct contact with the future world of flying.

Dr. Economo returned to Vienna in 1906 to become an assistant doctor at the Psychiatric Clinic under Julius von Wagner-Jauregg, the Nobel Prize winner, the physiologist, Sigismund Exner, and others, and began his researches in Munich where his work was greatly helped and influenced by the histologists, Alois Alzheimer and Emil Kräplin.

After he had acquired his own balloon, he was trained in 1910 in Paris as a pilot. He was the first Austrian to attain the international pilot diploma. At the large military manoeuvers of the year 1912, in which aircraft took part for the first time, he participated with his own machine and was appointed as k.u.k. Field-pilot.

In 1913 he was promoted to the rank of Lecturer in Psychiatry and Neurology and specialised in Morbus Wilson, Hemiballismus, Multiple Sclerosis, Paranoia querulans and Dipsomania. Constantin studied cerebal nerve disorders and first published a paper on an infectious disease of the brain which he named 'encephalitis lethargica' (sleepy sickness) in 1917.

In 1910, the Austrian Aeroclub chose him, as one of its oldest members as its president. Under his presidency the Aeroclub had its most glittering period, acquiring international respect through the flight meetings in the years 1912, 1913 and 1914. He pursued the establishment of the airfield at Aspern along with his friend Alexander Casione in the sure knowledge that the airfield of Viennese Neustadt lay too far from Vienna and the Simmering-Heide selected in the year 1909 for flight demonstrations was unsuitable.

During WWI he took a leading part in promoting the Austrian airship fleet, was a field-pilot on the Isonzo front, and finally a military doctor at the Vienna Clinic where he was the first to describe encephahitis lethargica in 1917. After the war, in 1919, he married in Vienna Princess Karoline von Schönburg-Hartenstein but the marriage was childless. He remained at the Wagner-Jauregg Clinic in Vienna, being given the Chair of Psychiatry and Neurology in 1921. He declined an invitation to work in Zurich and was rewarded in 1928 with the directorship of the Vienna Clinic.

In 1925 he published his greatest work 'The Atlas of the Cytoarchitectonics of the Great Braincase of Man' and founded, in 1931, the Brain Research Institute in Vienna. His book on 'Encephalitis lethargica' was published in 1929 but his promising career was ended by his early death in Vienna on 21st October 1931 from a heart disease. His biography 'Constantin, Freiherr von Economo, sein Leben und Wirken', by his widow and J. Wagner-Jauregg, was published in 1934 in Vienna. At the festival for the thirty year existence of the Aeroclub, he had expressed, shortly before his death, the conviction that in that century gravity would be overcome and nearby space reached.

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©Andy Taylor. Last updated 3 Jan 2014