Balint, Michael (Bálint [Bergsmann], Mihály) (1896-1970)

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Hungarian physician and analyst Michael Balint was born in Budapest on December 3, 1896, and died in London on December 31, 1970.

He was the son of a Jewish general practitioner (Dr. Bergsmann) from a Budapest suburb. In the course of his brilliant university career (he earned qualifications in neuropsychiatry, philosophy, chemistry, physics, and biology), he met Alice Székely-Kovács, an anthropology student, who became his wife in 1924.

After World War I, he held various positions in Budapest, and then in 1921, left for Berlin to undergo analysis with Hanns Sachs at the same time as Alice. He occupied various positions in the Psychoanalytic Institute, the Institute for Organic Chemistry of the Royal Academy of Berlin, as well as the Charité Hospital medical clinic. It was towards the end of his twenties, with the aim of better integrating in society, that he changed his name from the Jewish-sounding Bergsmann to the more "Hungarian" Balint, just as Sándor Ferenczi's father (born Fraenkel) had done.

Dissatisfied with their analyses with Hanns Sachs, the Bálints returned to Budapest to finish with Sándor Ferenczi. Michael Balint subsequently became Ferenczi's student, friend, and successor, as well as his literary executor. In 1931, he was made deputy director of the Psychoanalytic Polyclinic in Budapest under Ferenczi, becoming its director after Ferenczi's death.

In January 1939, under the pressure of anti-Semitism, the Bálints emigrated to Manchester, England. Six months after their arrival, Alice Balint died. During World War II, Bálint taught medicine and science and began a private practice in psychoanalysis. From 1942-1945, he directed the Centers for Child Guidance in North East Lancaster and Preston. From 1942-1945, he was an honorary psychiatry consultant at Manchester Northern Hospital, and in 1945, psychiatrist at the Center for Child Guidance in Chiselhurst, Kent.

That same year, he set himself up in London as an analyst. There he again took up his project of placing psychoanalysis in the service of general practitioners, this time in collaboration with Enid Albu (herself an analyst), whom he married in 1950. From 1950-1953, he was the scientific secretary of the British Psychoanalytic Society. An admired teacher and supervising analyst, he employed the Hungarian method of training, that is, he himself supervised the first case of candidates he had analyzed. From 1950-1961, he was a psychiatric consultant at the Tavistock Clinic, and from 1957, a visiting professor of psychiatry at the University College of Cincinnati in the United States. From 1961-1965, he was honorary assistant to the department of psychological medicine at the University College Hospital in London where he directed post-graduate training seminars. In 1968, he was elected president of the British Psychoanalytic Society.

Balint's psychoanalytic writings possess a remarkable coherence. He progressively developed his ideas from 1924 until they reached their ultimate form in his last work The Basic Fault (1968). In addition to the notion of the basic fault, Balint also introduced the concepts of primary love (1930-1935) in Primary Love and Psychoanalytic Technique (1952), and of benign and malignant regression in Thrills and Regressions (1959). He questioned the existence of primary narcissism and emphasized the contradictions in Freud's elaborations on it ("Critical Notes on the Theory of the Pregenital Organization of the Libido," 1935). He coined the term "ocnophile" to describe personalities that feel the need to cling to objects and the term "philobatism" to characterize those who dread obstacles and seek out open spaces that are free of them (1959). He distinguished three mental zones: the oedipal zone, involving three persons, where conventional language holds sway; the zone of the basic fault, involving two persons, where conventional language is no longer current; and the zone of creation, where the subject is alone and creates only out of the self (1968).

Balint's other major effort was his educational training work with general practitioners. His first article dealing with this subject dates from 1926: "On the Psychotherapies, for the Practicing Physician" (Therapia 5, Budapest). His major work in this area is The Doctor, His Patient and the Illness (1955).

The theoretical work of Michael Balint stands in direct relation to the clinic and constitutes a remarkable tool for psychoanalytic practitioners. The technique that he elaborated for use by general practitioners resulted in the creation of "Bálint Groups" and "Bálint Societies" that utilize this mode of training.

Finally, Balint is responsible for the preservation and promotion of the work of Sándor Ferenczi, for whom he was literary executor. It was Balint who transcribed Ferenczi's Clinical Diary, which he then translated into English, and who also made the first transcription, during the 1950s, of Ferenczi's correspondence with Freud.

Michael Balint published ten books (of which five were coauthored) and 165 articles. The Balint Archives are housed in the department of psychiatry in the University of Geneva.

Judith Dupont

Notions developed : Basic fault; Benign/malignant regression; Primary love.

See also: Balint group; Balint-Szekely-Kovács, Alice; Ego-libido/object-libido; Great Britain; Hungarian School; Hungary; Medicine and psychoanalysis; Tavistock Clinic.


Balint, Michael. (1964). The doctor, his patient and the illness (2nd ed.). London: Pitman Medical Publishing.

. (1968). The basic fault: therapeutic aspects of regression. London: Tavistock Publications.

Faure, Franck. (1978). La doctrine de Michael Bálint. Paris: Payot.

Haynal, André. (1988). The technique at issue: Controversies in psychoanalysis: From Freud and Ferenczi to Michael Bálint. London: Karnac.

Moreau Ricaud, Michelle. (2000). Michael Bálint: Le renouveau de l 'École de Budapest. Paris: Erès.