Brill, Abraham Arden (1874-1948)

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The American psychiatrist Abraham Brill was born on October 12, 1874, in Kanczugv, Austria (then Galicia) and died on March 2, 1948, in New York City.

His father was a noncommissioned officer in the Austrian Army who served with Maximilian in Mexico. After spending his childhood in Austria, Brill emmigrated to the United States in 1889 at age fifteen, without his family and with almost no money. He worked to support himself through high school and college, graduating from New York University in 1901. He received an MD degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University in 1904.

Brill worked as a psychiatrist in the New York State Mental Hospital System at the Central Islip State Hospital under the tutelage of Adolph Meyer and August Hoch. From 1902 to 1907, he traveled in Europe, first to Paris and then, at the suggestion of Frederick Peterson, to Zürich; there he learned about Freud's new science, psychoanalysis, from the staff of the Burgholzi Psychiatric Clinic (which included Eugen Bleuler and Carl Jung). He returned to America a year later and accepted a position as assistant physician of mental disease, Bellevue Hospital, which he held until 1911. In 1909 he attended the Clark University Conference, traveling with Freud's party from New York. He became the first practicing psychoanalyst in America and interested a small group of New York psychiatrists in psychoanalytic ideas.

In 1911, Sigmund Freud urged Ernest Jones to establish the American Psychoanalytic Association (APA) with James Jackson Putnam as president, and Brill as secretary. Brill refused to participate and instead, on February 12, 1911, with fifteen other physicians, founded the New York Psychoanalytic Society, several months before the APA was established in May of that year. From that time to the close of the First World War the New York Psychoanalytic Society was kept alive, practically single handedly, by Brill. He was the expositor and public advocate of psychoanalysis par excellence. He spoke at medical, neurological, and psychiatric societies, and to lay groups as well. He lectured to social workers, the New York City Police College, the Education Department of NYUmany of these lectures were reprinted in professional journals and lay publications. During the 1930s he presented a weekly radio broadcast lecture on mental health themes.

Of greatest importance for the dissemination and promulgation of psychoanalytic ideas in America were Brill's translations. Brill translated into English the major work of Sigmund Freud, some of Carl Gustav Jung's works, and Bleuler's Textbook of Psychiatry. His own publications included numerous journal articles and important books, including Psychoanalysis (1921). His The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud was published in 1938.

Abraham Arden Brill's importance to psychoanalysis was also as a leader of both psychoanalytic and psychiatric institutions. Brill became a member of the APA in 1914. He served as president of the APA in 1919 and 1920 and again from 1929 to 1935. He was president of the New York Psychoanalytic Society from 1911 to 1913 and from 1925 to 1936. His influence on psychoanalysts both in New York and the United States was at its zenith between 1929 to 1936. During this period he played a central role in restricting membership in the New York Society and in the APA to physicians. He defied Freud, who was supportive of lay analysis, because of his concern about "quackery," medical treatment by poorly trained or unauthorized practitioners. It was Brill's conviction that the survival of psychoanalysis in the United States depended on maintaining its medical identity.

Brill also played an important role in achieving autonomy for the APA within the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA). These organizational and credential principles were maintained until overturned by the settlement of a lawsuit brought against the IPA, the New York and Columbia Psychoanalytic Institutes, and APA by a group of psychologists in the 1980s. From the years immediately preceding World War II and until his death in 1948, Brill was displaced first by the Americans Bertram Lewin and Lawrence Kubie, and then by the Viennese psychoanalysts who emigrated to New York to escape Nazi persecution. However, he remained a proud and respected figure who more than any other psychoanalyst was responsible for the growth of psychoanalysis in the United States.

Arnold D. Richards

See also: Frink, Horace Westlake; International Psychoanalytic Association; Lay analysis; New York Psychoanalytic Institute; United States.


Hale, Nathan G., Jr. (1995). The rise and crisis of psychoanalysis in the United States: Freud and the Americans 1917-1985. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brill, Abraham Arden

views updated May 23 2018


BRILL, ABRAHAM ARDEN (1874–1948), Austrian-born psychoanalyst. Brill studied with *Freud in Vienna, and to him belongs the main credit for introducing Freud's writings to the English-speaking world. Beginning in 1909 with a translation of Studien ueber Hysterie (1895; Studies in Hysteria, 1936), written by Freud jointly with J. Breuer, Brill continued over the years to present a systematic translation of most of Freud's work. In 1911 he founded the New York Psychoanalytical Society, and was appointed head of the Psychiatry Clinic at Columbia University.

While Brill's most significant contribution to psychoanalysis was his translation of Freud, he was a talented psychoanalytic practitioner and did some noteworthy research especially on necrophilia. He made an historic contribution to the integration of psychoanalytic concepts into psychiatry. Brill's own writings include Freud's Contribution to Psychiatry (1944) and Psychoanalysis: Its Theories and Practical Application (19223).


G. Zilboorg, History of Medical Psychology (1941), 504–6; New York Times (March 3, 1948), 23.

[Danah Zohar]

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Abraham Arden Brill

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