Gattel, Felix (1870-1904)

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GATTEL, FELIX (1870-1904)

Felix Gattel, a medical doctor, was born in Berlin on December 14, 1870, and died in 1904. He is known in the history of psychoanalysis as Sigmund Freud's first student.

Gattel traveled from San Francisco to Würzburg, Germany, to complete his studies. Though he specialized in neurology, he spent May to October 1897 in Vienna, studying with Freud (Masson, Jeffrey M., 1985). He published a few articles but after 1899 all trace of Gattel was lost. The exact date of his death is not known, but Wilhelm Fliess indicates in his writings that he died in 1906. Subsequent research by Michael Schröter and Ludger M. Hermanns has led to the conclusion that he died on October 17, 1904.

Gattel followed the same initial scientific education as Freud, beginning his career in pathological anatomy. His interest then turned to neurosis and sexuality. He learned about Freud while he was doing research, in particular, through an article written by Freud in collaboration with Oskar Rie on infantile cerebral hemiplegia (1891a). Gattel, aware of Freud's growing reputation in the field of neurasthenia and hysteria, contacted him before settling in Vienna, most likely to take advantage of Freud's clinical experience.

Gattel remains something of a mystery to us, since there is little available biographical material. He was one of Freud's earliest supporters and, with Emma Eckstein, can be considered one of his first studentsat least in the traditional academic sense, where a young medical student might work under the guidance of an older colleague. Eckstein can be considered the first student of analysis, since she was analyzed by Freud and then began analyzing others in turn.

Gattel's importancealthough minorin the history of psychoanalysis shows up in several ways. Freud, eager to communicate his research results, conducted experiments with him, as he did later with Heinrich Gomperz; this was classic scientific research as practiced in academic circles. As an academic Freud assigned Gattel the job of conducting field research in neurasthenia (letter to Wilhelm Fliess, January 20, 1898). Gattel was an enthusiastic and enterprising student, but not up to the theoretical level his teacher would have liked. It was through these early experiments with Gattel that Freud came to understand that conventional scientific research was not the best method for communicating his ideas. During this work, he came to understand the importance of transference between student and teacher. It is easy to understand the importance of Freud's first students by examining the concept of the correspondent in scientific discovery. Gattel and Fliess, although in different ways, assumed this role before the creation of the Wednesday Psychological Society. It was during these meetings that Freud was able to express himself most fully, for his audience was able to follow his ideas and spurred him on intellectually. At the same time, given the inevitable diffusion of transference in a small group, he was not overly concerned with the intensity of two-way transference. This activity preceded the evolution of the small group of the "savage horde" that Freud later became interested in.

Gattel appears in the Freud-Fliess correspondence as someone inclined to plagiarism. He was the quintessential mediocre student. In the Swoboda affair, which signaled the end of Freud's friendship with Fliess (Porge, Erik, 1994; Le Rider, Jacques, 1982), he is mentioned as an example of an unreliable personality. Frank J. Sulloway (1979) exaggerates his importance, but Schröter and Hermanns (1992) provide a more accurate assessment of him as a talented and hard working young man, capable of recognizing the value of a scientific discovery but unable, during his short life, to live up to the promise of his talent.

Nicolas Gougoulis

See also: Germany; "Neurasthenia and 'Anxiety Neurosis'".


Freud, Sigmund, and Rie, Oskar. (1891a). Klinische Studie über die halbseitige Cerebrallähmung der Kinder, Heft III der Beiträge zur Kinderheilkunde. Wien: Kassowitz.

Le Rider, Jacques. (1982). L'Affaire Otto Weininger. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Masson, Jeffrey M. (1985). The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904. London: Belknap.

Porge, Erik. (1994). Vol d'idées? Paris: Denoël.

Schröter, Michael and Hermanns, Ludger. (1992). Felix Gattel, 1870-1904: Freud's first pupil. International Review of Psychoanalysis, 19, 91-104, 97-208.

Sulloway, Frank J. (1979). Freudbiologist of the mind. London: Burnett.