Hug-Hellmuth, Hermine (1871–1924)

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Hug-Hellmuth, Hermine (1871–1924)

Austrian who was the world's first practicing child psychoanalyst. Born Hermine Hug von Hugenstein in Vienna, Austria, on August 31, 1871; attended University of Vienna; murdered in Vienna on September 8–9, 1924; daughter of Hugo Ritter Hug von Hugenstein; had sister Antonie; never married.

The dramatic nature of Hermine Hug-Hellmuth's death—murder at the hands of her nephew—has tended to obscure the important role she played in the early years of psychoanalysis. Born Hermine Hug von Hugenstein in 1871 into an aristocratic family in Vienna, she decided on a teaching career, as did her older sister Antonie Hug . While Antonie became a professor at the private Halberstam Girls' Secondary School, Hermine began teaching in the Vienna public schools, first in the elementary grades and eventually in grades six through eight. During these years, pressure was growing to open up higher education for women at not only the prestigious University of Vienna, but throughout the universities and technical institutes of the multinational Habsburg Empire. In 1897, Hermine passed her Matura examinations and became one of the first Austrian women to enroll at the University of Vienna.

While teaching full-time, she took courses and attended seminars, earning a doctoral degree in 1909 with a dissertation that examined the physical and chemical properties of radioactive substances. She became, however, more interested in the recesses of the human mind than in the natural sciences. After retiring from teaching in 1901 with a small teachers' pension and some private means, she became an independent scholar in psychoanalysis, an area that had become a part of contemporary Viennese intellectual life. Introduced to the discipline by Dr. Isidor Sadger, a nerve specialist and psychoanalyst, she devoured the growing literature on this subject. In 1912, the year that she published the first of her many psychoanalytic papers, she changed her surname from the aristocratic Hug von Hugenstein to the more democratic and contemporary-sounding Hug-Hellmuth. In 1913, she was admitted to the inner sanctum of the psychoanalytic movement, the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, a clear sign that the society's acknowledged master, Sigmund Freud, had read her papers and approved of their content. Hug-Hellmuth was both one of the very small number of women admitted and one of the few gentiles in a field whose practitioners were almost entirely of Jewish background.

Within a few years of entering the world of psychoanalysis, Hermine Hug-Hellmuth enjoyed the full respect of her fellow psychoanalysts as the new disciple's foremost expert in child analysis and education. She published learned papers in virtually all contemporary academic journals and was often invited to lecture on her work, including before the Vienna Women's Cultural Association, the Adult Education Academy of Vienna's Urania, and the Sixth International Psychoanalytic Congress at The Hague in 1920. The paper she presented at the international congress, "On the Technique of Child Analysis" continues to be regarded as a seminal work in the field, and it is generally considered to have been a major influence on the theories later developed by Melanie Klein . In a letter to a professional colleague, Sigmund Freud personally applauded the work Hug-Hellmuth had done with his grandson Ernst: "Strict upbringing by an intelligent mother enlightened by Hug-Hellmuth has done him a great deal of good."

Although much of her work was quickly looked up to as providing profound and lasting insights into the minds of children, her book Tagebuch eines halbwüchsigen Mädchens (The Diary of a Young Girl) created a firestorm of controversy upon its publication in 1919. This work purported to be Hug-Hellmuth's edited version of the detailed diary of a young Austrian upper-middle-class girl which dated to the early years of the 20th century. Highly praised by Lou Andreas-Salomé , Stefan Zweig, and other leading intellectuals of the day, the diary received the all-important imprimatur of Sigmund Freud. In a 1915 letter to Hug-Hellmuth, which was later used as a preface for the book, Freud described the diary as "a little gem" that he believed would "arouse the greatest interest in educators and psychologists … [because it provideda] clear and truthful view of the mental impulses that characterize the development of a girl … during the years before puberty."

Freud's words of praise could not save The Diary of a Young Girl from being skeptically received by some readers, both within and outside the psychoanalytic community, who doubted the work's authenticity. Alfred Adler and members of his dissident circle of analysts strongly suspected the work was a fake, most likely concocted by Hug-Hellmuth on the basis of her own analytical experiences. In succeeding editions of the diary, Hug-Hellmuth did indeed admit that she was its editor, and hoped to stop criticism of the work by providing some information on the author whose name she still chose to keep anonymous. This did little to calm the waters, and several prestigious psychologists of the day, particularly Cyril Burt and Charlotte Bühler , entered the fray by charging that the emotions described in the diary simply did not reflect the appropriate developmental stages of the girl who was said to be its author. Determined to discover the truth, Bühler carried on a vigorous campaign to get Hug-Hellmuth to admit that she had written all or at least major parts of the diary. Hug-Hellmuth, however, would never make such an admission.

Recent research by French scholars Dominique Soubrenie , Jacques Le Rider and Yvette Tourné has presented compelling arguments for ascribing authorship of the diary to Hermine Hug-Hellmuth. Although the work is more than likely not an authentic "diary of a young girl," it continues to provide strong insights into the mind of an adolescent girl and remains a significant document of the pioneering period of Viennese psychoanalysis. Helene Deutsch summed up the controversy succinctly: "Dr. Hug-Hellmuth had both psychological insight and literary talent…. [T]he book is so true psychologically that it has become a gem of psychoanalytic literature."

The final years of Hug-Hellmuth's life were troubled not only by the controversy that raged over The Diary of a Young Girl, but also because of growing problems in her personal life. Most of all, she was concerned about the emotional stability of her nephew Rudolph Otto Hug, known to friends and family as Rolf. Born in 1906, Rolf was the illegitimate son of Hermine's sister Antonie. After his mother died in 1915, young Rolf was placed in various foster homes, and he became a troubled, wayward young man. While still a child, he was intensively analyzed by his aunt Hermine and became an important research subject for her psychoanalytical work. In Hug-Hellmuth's first book, Aus dem Seelenleben des Kindes (On the Spiritual and Mental Life of the Child), which was published in 1913, Rolf emerged as the major personality, with the author concluding that his external actions were based on abnormal sexual motives and tendencies.

By the end of World War I, young Rolf was living with his aunt. Soon, however, the relationship deteriorated dramatically with many quarrels between the two, and Rolf attempted suicide. He was furious at his aunt for many reasons, including his belief that she never saw him as more than a guinea pig for her work. Embittered and alienated, Rolf was placed in an institution in 1922 after he had been involved in a large number of violent encounters and arrested for theft several times. Unable to settle down either in school or work, he was chronically in need of funds which he often sought from his aunt. Finally, she told him he would no longer be permitted to enter her home.

On the night of September 8–9, 1924, Rolf entered his aunt's home, doubtless intending to steal some money. Hermine Hug-Hellmuth woke up unexpectedly and to end her screams Rolf strangled her. He was quickly arrested in possession of money and a watch, and, when he was unable to explain when and where he had acquired these, quickly confessed to having killed his aunt. The event became a feeding frenzy of sensationalism in the Viennese press which described Rolf as a "delinquent," "black sheep" and "good-for-nothing." Implying that the psychoanalyst had somehow recklessly created the conditions that led to her own murder, Rudolf von Urbantschitsch wrote in Vienna's leading newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse, that it was "particularly difficult to talk about what happened to her because it was precisely her nephew who condemned her to a premature and eternal silence—the very same nephew who had frequently been featured in her books, and whose impulses were well known from an early age." Hug-Hellmuth's achievements quickly faded into oblivion because of the dramatic nature of her death, which fascinated both journalists and well-established authors. A fictionalized version of the troubled relationship between Hug-Hellmuth and her nephew appeared soon after in Arthur Schnitzler's novel Therese: Chronik eines Fraunlebens (Therese: Chronicle of a Woman's Life).

At his trial, Rolf's former tutor Dr. Isidor Sadger provided much negative testimony against the young man, who was sentenced to 12 years of solitary confinement. To remind him of his heinous crime, the terms of Rolf's sentence stipulated that every year on September 8, the anniversary of his crime, he would be required to spend the entire day in total darkness. After five years' imprisonment, Rolf was released. He immediately demanded of Paul Federn, a leading psychoanalyst and close collaborator of Sigmund Freud, that the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society provide him with money to compensate for the fact that his life had been ruined by his aunt's use of him as an experiment for her research. Rather than provide funds to Rolf, Federn gave him the name and address of Helene Deutsch. Deutsch, who was not consulted in the matter, became concerned for her own safety when Rolf began following her. Finally, a private detective was hired to provide her with security.

As the world's first practicing child psychoanalyst, Hermine Hug-Hellmuth developed a technique of observing children at play which preceded the research later carried out by Helene Deutsch, Anna Freud , and Melanie Klein. Klein developed Hug-Hellmuth's use of play into a play therapy which eventually became a therapeutic vehicle intended to replace free association. It remains to be seen whether or not Hug-Hellmuth's achievements will be given the same life and serious study as her sudden and dramatic death.


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Graf-Nold, Angela. Der Fall Hermine Hug-Hellmuth: Eine Geschichte der frühen Kinder-Psychoanalyse. Munich: Verlag Internationale Psychoanalyse, 1988.

Houzel, Didier. Depressions. Paris: Bayard editions, 1993.

Hug-Hellmuth, Hermine. Essais Psychanalytiques: Destin et écrits d'une pionniere de la psychanalyse des enfants. Translated and edited by Dominique Soubrenie. Paris: Payot, 1991.

——, ed. A Young Girl's Diary. Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. NY: Thomas Seltzer, 1921.

MacLean, George. "A Brief Story About Dr. Hermine Hug-Hellmuth," in Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Vol. 31, no. 6. August 1986, pp. 586–589.

——. "Hermine Hug-Hellmuth: A Neglected Pioneer in Child Psychoanalysis," in Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry. Vol. 25, no. 4. July 1986, pp. 579–580.

——, and Ulrich Rappen. Hermine Hug-Hellmuth: Her Life and Work. NY: Routledge, 1991.

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Schnitzler, Arthur. Therese: Chronik eines Frauenlebens. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Tachenbuch Verlag, 1981.

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John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia