Adolf Meyer (psychiatrist) bigraphy, stories - American psychiatrist

Adolf Meyer (psychiatrist) : biography

September 13, 1866 - March 17, 1950

Adolf Meyer (September 13, 1866 – March 17, 1950), was a Swiss psychiatrist who rose to prominence as the president of the American Psychiatric Association and was one of the most influential figures in psychiatry in the first half of the twentieth century. His focus on collecting detailed case histories on patients is the most prominent of his contributions; along with his insistence that patients could best be understood through consideration of their "psychobiological" life situations. He is most remembered for reframing mental disease as biopsychosocial "reaction types" rather than as biologically-specificable natural disease entitites. In 1906 he reframed dementia praecox as a "reaction type," a discordant bundle of maladaptive habits that arose as a response to biopsychosocial stressors.


Meyer wrote no books; his pervasive influence on American psychiatry stemmed instead from his numerous published papers, his prestige, and his students, both at Manhattan State and, especially, at Johns Hopkins. Many of his students went on to make significant contributions to American psychiatry or psychoanalysis, though not necessarily as Meyerians. Always eclectic and willing to absorb ideas from whatever sources he found relevant, Meyer never formed his own discrete school of thought with disciples. Most of the founders of the New York Psychoanalytic Society had worked under Meyer at Manhattan State Hospital, including its chief architect Abraham Arden Brill, and Charles Macfie Campbell. Though Meyer found Freud's ideas interesting, he never practiced psychoanalysis and increasingly distanced himself from it as the years went on. As he wrote in his presidential address to the 84th Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association: "Those who imagine that all psychiatry and psychopathology and therapy have to resolve themselves into a smattering of claims and hypotheses of psychoanalysis and that they stand or fall with one's feelings about psychoanalysis, are equally misguided" [page 18 in the Collected Papers, volume II, originally published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, LXXXV, 1928, 1–31]. This address, "Thirty-Five Years of Psychiatry in the United States and Our Present Outlook" gives Meyer's own account of American psychiatry during the time when he himself was important in helping to shape it.

Meyer was a strong believer in the importance of empiricism, and advocated repeatedly for a scientific approach to understanding mental illness. Meyer was skeptical of autointoxication and focal infection theories (then viewed as the cutting edge concept of scientific medicine)as biological causes of behavioral abnormalities. He was involved with the Eugenics Records Office, which he viewed as a natural extension of the mental hygiene movement which he helped to create. Meyer's work was greatly influenced by Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey.


For Meyer's writings see The Collected Papers of Adolf Meyer, edited by Eunice E. Winters. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1950–1952. 4 vols. Volume I covers neurology; volume II psychiatry; volume III medical teaching; volume 4 mental hygiene. The introductions to each volume provide biographical background for the volume's subject area.

A good selection of Meyer's published work can be found in The Commonsense Psychiatry of Dr. Adolf Meyer: Fifty-two Selected Papers, edited by Alfred A. Lief. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1948.

Probably the best exposition of Meyer's psychobiology is to be found in Psychobiology: a Science of Man, compiled and edited by Eunice E. Winters and Anna Mae Bowers. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas, (1957). This posthumous book was based on the first Thomas W. Salmon Lectures, which Meyer gave in 1931.

George Kirby's Guides for History Taking and Clinical Examination of Psychiatric Cases (Utica: State Hospitals Press 1921) is essentially the form Meyer created and used at Manhattan State Hospital in 1905–1906. It provides an excellent view of Meyer's early approach to taking case histories.

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