Adolf Meyer and American Psychiatry

In Susan Lamb’s excellent new book, Pathologist of the Mind, we are exposed to the history of American psychiatry and Adolf Meyer.

Her express goal, as I write in the new issue of History of Psychiatry, is to rediscover Meyerian psychiatry and establish a foundation on which future scholars of psychiatry might build. The book is both a hospital history and biography of Adolf Meyer, the “most recognizable, authoritative, and influential psychiatrist in the U.S.” during the first half of the twentieth century. (3) A Swiss neurologist and psychiatrist, Meyer created the convoluted theory of psychobiology, presided over the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins University, and helped establish psychiatry as a clinical science.

For Lamb, there is a consensus within the history of psychiatry field that Meyer is “the definitive influence on the development of American psychiatry.” (8) Yet, she makes the case – which is certainly convincing – that Meyer is underrepresented in the historiography, that neither the substance nor the reception of his ideas and practices have been analyzed systematically, and, worse still, that certain prominent historians of psychiatry have marginalized his significance. Her book thus acts as a corrective.

OAMY HR_Pathologist (1)

However, Lamb’s book is not a comprehensive history of Meyerian psychiatry. She makes this abundantly clear. In covering the years 1908-1917, Pathologist of the Mind is limited to the decade in which the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore was planned, built, and run in its earliest days. It would, under Meyers’s pioneering stewardship, employ novel investigational and diagnostic practices as well a regime of bed rest, recreation, good nutrition, and social interaction – what Lamb calls an innovative “therapeutic experiment.” (23)

The basis of Lamb’s argument is nearly 2,000 patient records and Meyer’s notes, lectures, and correspondence. And, she asserts, there is so much more to be written on Adolf Meyer. In her view, scholars have “an embarrassment of archival riches and raw data” at their disposal and it could “yield stacks of diverse monographs” from a dozen different disciplinary perspectives.” (9) Her monograph was conceived as merely a starting point for a larger conversation.

A Great Beard

To the author’s credit, Meyer is not venerated. Lamb is respectful, but unintimidated. She is balanced, but not boring. On occasion, she rightfully demolishes him.

For example, Lamb’s criticism of Meyer’s impenetrable, meandering style of writing is a constant in the monograph. At the same time, with anecdotes about his mother’s troubles with mental illness and references to his unfortunate “ominous crow” nickname, Lamb successfully revives and humanizes Meyer as a meaningful character in the unfolding drama of American psychiatry. The result, I suggest, is that the reader begins to detect the shimmering outlines of a whole being, in all its uniqueness and quiddity.

As scholars, physicians, and other critics question the rise of the pharmaceutical industry and its influence on modern society (what Healy calls Pharmageddon), Lamb’s book provides valuable historical context. Her book is worth a read! The full review is here:



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