Founding psychiatry in Vienna as a neuroscience

Institut für Geschichte der Medizin, Medizinische Universität Wien, Austria
helmut.groeger AT

Psychiatry as a medical discipline was established in Vienna relatively late. In mid-nineteenth century the characteristic and essential criterion ascribed to a scientific theory was the pathologico-anatomical orientation as represented by Karl Rokitansky (1804 – 1892).

In line with this approach Theodor Meynert (1833-1892) studied the pathologico-anatomical structures of the brain, also using microscopy. Against the stern resistance mainly stemming from hospital-based psychiatrists, Meynert was nevertheless appointed Head of the Psychiatric Department, founded at the University of Vienna Teaching Hospital in 1870. In 1873 Meynert became “Ordinarius” (professor in ordinary) for Psychiatry. From then on psychiatry as a science was understood by Meynert as a discipline dealing with the diseases of the brain – including neuropathology. Focus was now on the organ and not on the symptoms – applying to psychiatry and neuropathology alike. Psychopathology played a subordinate role, mere observation and description was taken to be non-scientific, also implying that hypnosis was completely rejected.

Meynert´s research concentrated almost exclusively on neuroscience, such as the cytoarchitecture of the brain, the distinction between projective and associative fibres or the explanation of mental diseases based on the contrast between the cortex and the phylogenetically older subcortical centres. As a logical consequence Meynert installed a laboratory for cerebral research and a neurological outpatient department in his clinic.

Meynert was not the founder of neuropsychiatry in Vienna´s Medical School but he established scientific psychiatry as such; however, in his opinion it had to be a neuroscience.

The predominance of neuroscience and particularly of cerebral research in psychiatry as practiced in Vienna had far-reaching effects all the way into the 20th century. This also explains the close connexion between neurology and psychiatry as an inseparable unit and the very modest acceptance of Sigmund Freud (1856-1938) and his psychoanalysis with its contradicting orientation; moreover, it also had a similar effect on other arising dynamic trends.

Session III
Friday, 23 June 2006, 10.00 - 10.30 am

11th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Pavia, Italy, 2006