Meyer, Adolf F. (1866-1950)

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MEYER, ADOLF F. (1866-1950)

Adolf Meyer was born on September 3, 1866, in Niederweningen, a small village near Zurich, Switzerland, and died on March 17, 1950, in Baltimore, Maryland. An early, influential psychiatrist, Meyer was one of the founders of the New York Psychoanalytic Society and of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

Son of a Zwinglian minister, Meyer studied medicine in Zurich, where he was student of Auguste Forel at the Burghölzli Mental Hospital. He also studied in England with Hughlings Jackson and in Paris with Jean Martin Charcot.

In 1892 Meyer emigrated to the United States. He worked at the Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane, then at the Worcester Lunatic Hospital, in Massachusetts. From 1902 he practiced at the New York State Pathological Institute of Manhattan. There he joined early informal meetings about psychoanalysis. From 1904 to 1909 Meyer served as professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical School. He began teaching his original views concerning dementia praecox (schizophrenia), taking a broader view of its etiology and prognosis than was common at the time. (The Emil Kraepelin tradition of psychiatry viewed dementia praecox as an organic disease without possibility of cure.) In 1909 Meyer lectured on the dynamics of this disease at Clark University's twentieth anniversary jubilee, in which Freud also took part. In 1910 he became the first psychiatrist appointed to a chair at Johns Hopkins University, where he taught until 1941. And in 1913 he was named director of the university's new Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic.

At a time when knowledge about the brain was highly limited, Meyer deemphasized organic factors in such severe mental disorders as schizophrenia, in favor of a functional typology. His Psychobiology: A Science of Man, published posthumously in 1957, represents in part the influence of Hughlings Jack-son's biological approach to neurology; Meyer had studied Jackson's institute in London in 1891. (In Meyer's usage, psychobiology adumbrates but is far short of the contemporary discipline of the same name.) Downplaying efforts to link behavior to brain lesions or neurological abnormalities, Meyer attempted to relate specific disease states to conscious emotions, linking even severe disorders to a patient's experience and habitual reactions. Meyer did not view schizophrenia, for example, as an untreatable illness with a fatal prognosis, as was common in Kraepelinian psychiatry. He suggested instead that dynamic factors could lead to debilitating mental disease, and he advocated treating individual patients in private practice. This viewpoint, because it saw psychotherapy as offering optimistic prognoses, helped introduce psychoanalytic thinking into psychiatry and extend its influence in the field from the mid-twentieth century.

Meyer was also a key figure in the mental-health movement in the United States. Psychiatrists and neurologists were formerly largely limited to practicing in mental institutions. Meyer advocated employing psychiatrists in schools, prisons, and a variety of community and workplace settings. He thus was instrumental in vastly expanding the role of psychiatrists.

Elke MÜhlleitner

See also: Burghölzli asylum; Japan; United States.


Bonin, Werner F. (1963). Die grossen Psychologen. Düsseldorf, Germany: Econ Taschenbuch.

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

Leys, Ruth. (1990). Adolf Meyer: A biographical note. In Ruth Leys and Rand B. Evans (Eds.), Defining American psychology: The correspondence between Adolf Meyer and Edward Bradford Titchener. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Meyer, Adolf. (1950-1952). Collected papers of Adolf Meyer (4 vols.). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press.

. (1957). Psychobiology: A science of man. Springfield, IL: Thomas.

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Meyer, Adolf F. (1866-1950)

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