3 minute read

Adolf Meyer

Swiss-born American psychiatrist who developed the concept of psychobiology.

Adolph Meyer was born in Niederweningen, Switzerland, and received an extensive medical education in neurology in Zurich, obtaining his M.D. in 1892. He emigrated to the United States in the same year. Beginning in 1893, Meyer worked for several hospitals, including a state hospital in Kankakee, Illinois, as a pathologist, and the New York State Hospital Service Pathological Institute, where he was involved with the training of psychiatrists. Meyer later joined the faculty of Cornell Medical College in New York City, where he served as professor of psychiatry. In 1909 G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924), a prominent psychologist and former student of William James, invited Meyer to Clark College in Worcester, Massachusetts, on the occasion of the college's twentieth anniversary, where he met with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Adolf Meyer (AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced with permission.)

In following year Meyer was appointed professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and director of its Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic, which became an internationally renowned training center for psychiatrists.

Meyer became so influential in his adopted country that he was known as "the dean of American psychiatry," and his work has had a wide influence on psychiatric theory and practice. In Meyer's view, the diagnosis and treatment of a mental disorder must include a thorough understanding of the patient as a whole person. This approach, which would today be termed "holistic," involved studying the patient from various perspectives— medical, biographical, educational, and even artistic. It was this goal that led him to introduce the use of the individual case history, bringing together in one place information about a patient's physical condition, past history, family life, work situation, and other facts that could be relevant to treatment. Meyer also pioneered in promoting visits to the patient's family in order for the psychiatrist to understand the environment in which the patient lived, and to which he or she would return when treatment was completed.

Meyer believed that the constituent elements of human existence are actively interrelated, from the lowest biochemical level to the highest cognitive level. Arguing that psychological factors may be as important as neuropathology in causing mental illness, Meyer advocated integrating the studies of human psychology and biology into a single system that he called psychobiology. The goal of psychobiological therapy was the successful integration of different aspects of the patient's personality. Steps involved in this psychotherapy included analyzing the psychological, sociological, and biological factors relevant to the patient's illness; working with the patient on a conscious level, staying close to the original complaint; and utilizing a combination of treatment methods satisfactory to both psychiatrist and patient.

Through therapy that addressed both short-term and long-term problems, Meyer's goal was to help the patient adjust as well as possible to life and change. Part of the therapy process consisted of aiding the patient in modifying unhealthy adjustments to his or her situation through guidance, suggestion, and reeducation, which Meyer called "habit training." His emphasis on habits extended to include schizophrenia, which he viewed as caused by harmful habits acquired over a long period of time, in combination with biological factors, including heredity. Neurosis, Meyer believed, differed from psychosis in that only a part of the personality was involved. He viewed neurotic patients as suffering from unrealistic expectations and the inability to accept themselves as they were.

Meyer, together with Clifford Beers, was also a founder of the mental hygiene movement (and the one who suggested its name). The goal of this movement was to educate the public about mental illness and achieve more humane treatment of institutionalized patients. Meyer contributed significantly to the medical literature on psychiatry. His papers were collected and published in Collected Papers (1950-1952).

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists