Franz Gabriel Alexander (1891–1964), physician and psychoanalyst, was born in Budapest, the son of a professor of history and philosophy at the University of Budapest. In the scholarly environment of the university Alexander’s interests early focused on the world of ideas: the humanities, languages, and aesthetics. His uncle, a successful chemical engineer, introduced him to the precision of scientific discipline.
As early as high school Alexander’s scientific interests became predominant, although he never entirely abandoned humanistic philosophy. He went to the University of Göttingen to study medicine and was attracted to the new mathematical formulations of David Hilbert and Hermann Minkowski, the innovations in theoretical physics of Theodor von Karman, and the philosophical dissertations of Edmund Husserl. Husserl and Alexander clashed over the latter’s refusal to abandon the position that knowledge of a thing is a function of both the nature of the object and the perceiving mind. In a sense, Alexander’s position foreshadowed his later commitment to psychoanalysis and psychosomatic medicine.
After Göttingen, Alexander returned to Budapest to complete his medical training and do further research in biochemistry and physiology. In World War I he served as a military physician on various battlefronts, and at the end of the war he returned to Budapest to work in brain physiology at the Neuropsychiatric Clinic of the university.
Although he had read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams as a medical student, its relevance and applicability to clinical matters became clear to him only during this period in the psychiatric department. Not entirely convinced—but increasingly becoming so—that the various examinations and tests then employed in psychiatric diagnosis and study were meaningless in comparison to the approach of psychoanalysis, Alexander went to Berlin in 1919, where he became the first student in the recently founded Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute. He underwent analysis with Hanns Sachs and became an assistant in the institute. In 1921 he won a prize awarded by Freud for research in the field of psychoanalysis for his study “The Castration Complex in the Formation of Character” (1923).
In 1924 and 1925 Alexander gave a series of lectures at the Berlin Institute that formed the basis of his first book, The Psychoanalysis of the Total Personality (1927), an elaboration of the theory of the superego. This work excited the psychoanalytic community generally and moved Freud to write, “The young man is extraordinarily good,” and to express his confidence that Alexander would become one of the pillars of the psychoanalytic movement.
Developing the ideas on the superego that he had presented in his book, Alexander began to work with Hugo Staub, a lawyer, on the application of psychoanalytic principles to the field of criminology. Together they published The Criminal, the Judge, and the Public (1929), dealing with the understanding and diagnosis of criminal personalities. The direct result of this contribution to criminology was that Alexander was invited to attend the 1930 International Congress for Mental Hygiene, in Washington. Indirectly, it led to the beginning of a new phase of his career in the United States.
While in Washington, Alexander was offered a one-year visiting professorship in psychiatry at the University of Chicago Medical School by Robert Hutchins, the newly installed president of the university. Hutchins hoped in this way to introduce psychiatry into the medical school curriculum. Alexander suggested instead that he be visiting professor of psychoanalysis and proposed that he teach only psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychiatry. After careful consideration Hutchins, as well as the director of the university clinics, Franklin McLean, agreed, and the world’s first university chair in psychoanalysis was created. However, Alexander’s hope that the psychological approach to the study and treatment of disease would become an integral part of medical education was not immediately realized. (Indeed, Freud had predicted that Alexander’s insistence on being called professor of psychoanalysis would aggravate the problem of acceptance.) It was the social scientists, philosophers, and lawyers who showed interest in the new field, rather than the physicians—with the exception of a few who became involved in work on the psychological aspects of medicine.
Following his year in Chicago, Alexander spent a year in Boston collaborating with William Healy, director of the Judge Baker Foundation, on problems of delinquency. Their insights derived from the psychoanalyses of a number of offenders are presented in Roots of Crime (1935). Then, in 1932, Alexander returned to Chicago to organize the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis (a separate entity from the Chicago Psychoanalytic Society).
To staff the new institute Alexander invited analysts already in Chicago and also recruited people from elsewhere to collaborate in training and research activities. He made considerable efforts to integrate the institute with Chicago’s medical community, in part by familiarizing medical leaders with psychoanalytic principles. This not only furthered the acceptance of the institute by the medical community but also set the stage for the psychosomatic research that became Alexander’s hallmark and that of the Chicago institute.
Alexander held many important professional positions. He was president of the American Psychoanalytic Association in 1938 and 1939, president of the American Society for Research in Psychosomatic Medicine in 1947–1948, and president of the Academy of Psychoanalysis in 1963–1964. He was also one of the founding editors of Psychosomatic Medicine, which first appeared in 1939 under the sponsorship of the National Research Council, and served on the editorial boards of many other professional journals.
Alexander was on the faculty of the University of Illinois department of psychiatry from 1938 until his retirement in 1956. That year he also retired as director of the Chicago institute after nearly 25 years, only to start new ventures in psychosomatic research and psychotherapy on the west coast. While he was affiliated with Mount Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, with the University of Southern California, and with the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute, he began a research project on the principles and factors involved in psychoanalytic and psychodynamic treatment, especially the role of the personality of the therapist in the therapeutic process.
At the time of his death, in 1964, Alexander had several major addresses scheduled and some papers ready for publication and was in the process of completing three books in collaboration with different teams in Chicago and Los Angeles. These writings reflect his constant attempt to fuse science and humanism, for they deal with the history of psychiatry, the psychoanalytic pioneers, and psychosomatic medicine.
George H Pollock
[For the historical context of Alexander’s work, seePsychoanalysis, article onClassical theoryand the biography ofFreud. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seePsychosomatic illness.]
1922 Kastrationskomplex und Charakter: Eine Untersuchung über Passagere Symptome. Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse 8:121–152.
1923 The Castration Complex in the Formation of Character. International Journal of Psycho-analysis 4:11–42.
(1927) 1930 The Psychoanalysis of the Total Personality: The Application of Freud’s Theory of the Ego to the Neuroses. Nervous and Mental Disease Monograph Series, No. 52. New York: Nervous & Mental Disease Pub. → First published in German.
(1929) 1956 Alexander, Franz; and Staub, HugoThe Criminal, the Judge, and the Public. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published as Der Verbrecher und seine Richter.
1935 Alexander, Franz; and Healy, William Roots of Crime: Psychoanalytic Studies. New York: Knopf.
1950 Psychosomatic Medicine: Its Principles and Applications. New York: Norton.
1952 Alexander, Franz (editor) Dynamic Psychiatry. Univ. of Chicago Press.
1960 The Western Mind in Transition: An Eyewitness Story. New York: Random House.
1962 The Scope of Psychoanalysis: 1921–1961. New York: Basic Books.
Glover, Edward 1964 Freudian or Neofreudian? Psychoanalytic Quarterly 33:97–109.