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Putnam, James Jackson (1846-1918)


American physician and neurologist James Jackson Putnam was born on October, 3, 1846 in Boston, where he died on November 4, 1918.

His family belonged to New England's professional aristocracy. Both his father and grandfather were prominent physicians. His mother admonished him to be good, honest, and not to entirely neglect his social obligations. He studied medicine at Harvard University. In 1870, he went to Europe to learn about electrotherapeutics and neurology, concentrating on anatomy and pathologywhose proponents believed that mental diseases were due to defective heredity, and that brain and mind were parallel systems. He became one of America's most distinguished specialists in nervous diseases.

By the mid-1890s, with, among others, William James, Josiah Royce, and Morton Prince, Putnam experimented with hypnosis and psychotherapy. His practices were rooted in the ideas of Janet, Bernheim, and Charcot, as well as in the virtue and belief in progress that, habitually, was taught to the members of New England's professional aristocracy. He was aware of Freud's work, and after meeting Ernest Jones (who then was in Toronto), he began to think that early experiences and childhood sexuality might be important elements in later neuroses and psychoses. Thus, he came to psychoanalysis at the age of sixty-three.

Together with William James, Putnam went to hear Freud's lectures at Clark University in 1909. He was impressed and invited Freud (along with Carl Jung and Sándor Ferenczi) to his camp in the Adirondacks. Nathan Hale (1971b, p. 25) demonstrates that there they forged a friendship, and Putnam became "convinced of Freud's integrity and sincerity, and from then on marshalled all his energies, prestige, and eloquence, on behalf of psychoanalysis." Until his death, he lectured on psychoanalysis at Harvard and published twenty-two papers on the subject.

In that period, Putnam and Freud exchanged eighty-eight letters, and Freud analyzed Putnam during psychoanalytic congresses. At Freud's urging, Putnam initiated the founding of the American Psychoanalytical Association in 1911, and the Boston Psychoanalytic Society in 1914. He fiercely defended psychoanalysis against scurrilous attacks. However, Putnam rejected Freud's bent toward materialism and determinism, and Freud objected to Putnam's idealistic and philosophical formulationswhich led him to urge his patients to ennoble their mindsand to the belief that individuals are ruled by an inherent principle of growth.

In Totem and Taboo Freud particularly rebutted the religious elements of Putnam's book Human Motives, although already before then Putnam's ideas allegedly had influenced him. Putnam's convictions originated in his Unitarian upbringing; in Bergson's belief that memory images are not "stored" in the brain but called up by the sensory-motor system; in his patient's, Susan Blow's, argument that "self-activity" expresses the self-determining energy of life; and in Royce's faith in an unseen ideal.

Throughout his life, Putnam was concerned with the moral crises which, in America, were arising out of an ingrained "civil morality"that engendered hidden conflicts due to expectations of religious purity in upwardly mobile men who were having illicit affairs. Because Putnam's case notes were destroyed, we do not know how he conducted his therapies. But his stature and esteem, and his dedication to psychoanalysis, were decisive in establishing the discipline on the North American continent.

Edith Kurzweil

See also: United States.


Freud, Sigmund. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

Hale, Nathan G. Jr. (1971a). Freud and the Americans: The beginnings of psychoanalysis in the United States, 1876-1917. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hale, Nathan G. Jr. (1971b). James Jackson Putnam and psychoanalysis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Putnam, James Jackson. (1915). Human motives. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

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