Sterba, Richard F. (1898-1989)

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STERBA, RICHARD F. (1898-1989)

Richard Sterba, physician and psychoanalyst, was born in Vienna on May 6, 1898, and died on October 24, 1989, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. His father, Josef Sterba, taught mathematics and physics at the high school level. Conscripted shortly before graduating from the gymnasium in 1916, Richard entered the army and was eventually promoted to lieutenant. While in the military, he became interested psychoanalysis and, after the war, began medical studies at the University of Vienna, graduating in 1923. The next year he started a training analysis with Eduard Hitschmann; without sufficient funds, he paid no fee, on the understanding that in the future he too would analyze some patients for free. His first supervising analyst was the neurologist Robert Hans Jokl, and he began treating patients after six months of analysis.

In 1926 Sterba married Editha von Radanowicz-Hartmann, and the couple were among the first students to attend the training institute of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, which opened at the end of 1924. Sterba became an associate member of the society in 1925 and a full member in 1928 (Sterba, 1982, p. 43). Shortly after presenting his 1926 paper, "Über latent, negativeÜbertragung" (On latent negative transference), Wilhelm Reich offered him a residency at a psychoanalytic outpatient clinic (Sterba, 1982, p. 40). Leaving his hospital position, he worked at the clinic with Grete Bibring and Eduard Kronen-gold. By 1929 Sterba was a training analyst, and in 1931 Adolf Josef Storfer, director of a psychoanalytic publishing house, suggested that he compile a psychoanalytic dictionary. Five fascicles of the lexicon were published (1936) before the coming of the Second World War put an end to the project.

Sterba was still in Austria in 1938, when the Nazi takeover of the country immediately disrupted psychoanalysis there. As a member of the board of directors of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, Sterba announced his intention to leave the country, to the relief of Freud and his daughter Anna, who themselves would soon migrate to England. As an "Aryan," Sterba was welcomed by the Nazis, but he declined a post at the neuropsychiatric clinic of the University of Vienna and also rejected an offer to head the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society under fascist auspices.

The Sterbas left Austria on March 16, 1938, first for Switzerland then, in 1939, for the United States. Ernest Jones and Anna Freud suggested that they immigrate to Johannesburg and help found a psychoanalytic society there, but the South African government thwarted these plans by denying them visas. They settled in Detroit, where Richard Sterba founded the Detroit Psychoanalytic Society in 1940 and served as its president from 1946 to 1952. He was appointed Professor of Psychiatry at the medical college of Wayne State University in Detroit in 1945.

Sterba specialized in psychoanalytic profiles of artists and published a study of Michelangelo and, in collaboration with his wife, a biography of Beethoven. In clinical matters, his hypothesis of "a therapeutic split of the ego" was controversial (Sterba, 1982, p. 91). In 1931 he published in German a treatise on the theory of the libido based on a course he taught at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. In 1942 an English translation appeared under the title Introduction to the Psychoanalytic Theory of the Libido. In 1982 he published his memoir, Reminiscences of a Viennese Psychoanalyst. He was the author of about one hundred articles, a number of which appear in Richard Sterba: The Collected Papers (1987).

Elke MÜhlleitner

See also: Sterba-Radanowicz-Hartmann, Editha.


Freud, Sigmund. (1936b [1932]). Preface to Richard Sterba's Handwörterbuch der psycho-analyse. SE, 22: 253.

Sterba, Edith, and Sterba, Richard. (1954). Beethoven and his nephew: A psychoanalytic study of their relationship. New York: Pantheon.

Sterba, Richard F. (1936). Handwörterbuch der psychoanalyse. Vienna: Internationaler psychoanalytischer Verlag.

. (1942). Introduction to the psychoanalytic theory of the libido. New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Monographs. (Original work published 1931)

. (1982). Reminiscences of a Viennese psychoanalyst. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

. (1987). Richard Sterba: The collected papers. New York: North River Press.