Hermann Rorschach

Born 1884
Died 1922

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Swiss psychiatrist, born November 8, 1884, Zurich; died April 2, 1922, Herisau.

Biography of Hermann Rorschach

Hermann Rorschach was born in Zurich to an ancient Swiss family from the Canton Thurgau. He went to school in the small town of Schaffhausen, in an atmosphere of intellectual and cultural affluence. His father, who died in 1903, was a failed artist who provided a living for his family by working as a drawing teacher in a boys' preparatory school.

Hermann's nickname as a secondary school student was Klex, meaning "inkblot". There has been much speculation as to the extraordinary coincidence of his nickname and the test for which he is now famous. Klecksography was a game which was commonly played by Swiss children and consisted of spotting an ink blot on paper and folding it so that the forms of a butterfly or a bird would be obtained.

Hermann Rorschach has been described as a studious and orderly pupil who completed his basic studies with top marks in all disciplines. He took a great interest in drawing, being an artist of some merit. Towards the end of his schooling in Schaffhausen he wrote to Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) - the famous advocate of Darwin's evolutionary theory - asking him whether he should go into further studies of art or natural sciences. Haeckel advised the second, so in 1904 he entered medical school in Zurich, spending some time at Neuchâtel (German: Neuenburg), Berlin and Berne, but spending the majority of his time in Zurich.

At this time Zurich was a world centre of psychiatry, and a major part of clinical education in Switzerland was devoted to psychiatry. Already in his early days as a medical student Rorschach planned to become a psychiatrist, and his interest in this speciality was undoubtedly boosted during the courses of clinical and theoretical psychiatry which he attended at the Burghölzli university clinic. Not very surprising, with teachers like Auguste-Henri Forel (1848-1931), the almost equally famous successor, Eugen Bleuler 1857-1939), and as fame goes, no other than Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), who had just worked out the association test to explore the unconscious mind. At this stage the work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was just beginning to gain in popularity.

In his student days he developed an intense interest in Russia and Russians, and in Zurich he was soon to meet members of the Russian colony in the town. This elite group counted among its members men like Constantin von Monakow (1853-1930), the famous neurologist. Rorschach began learning Russian, and in 1906, while studying in Berlin, he went for a holiday in Russia.

Rorschach graduated in medicine at Zurich in 1909 and at the same time became engaged to Olga Stempelin, a Russian girl in Switzerland, and then visited her family in Kazan. At this time he had decided to move to Russia permanently, but first wanted to complete his education in Switzerland.

Since both he and his fiancée were poor, in 1909 he chose to take a position in the psychiatric hospital in Münsterlingen because the salary was much better than he would have obtained in a university clinic. He married in 1910 and remained at the asylum until 1913, becoming very popular with the patients by organising theatrical entertainment and keeping very close records of the patients, including a photographic record which he himself took. At one time he bought a monkey and kept it to observe the patients' reactions to it, and also to entertain them.

With a school teacher friend of his, K. Gehring, Rorschach in 1911 was experimenting with inkblots and Jung's word association test on school children and patients. He described these experiments in 1911, though not very systematically. His growing interest in psychoanalysis was probably the reason why he put aside this work. He had become interested in the interpretation of art works by psychotics and neurotics and their own abilities to paint.

Like many psychiatrists of his time he was impressed by symbolic associations, and in a paper, Clock and time, he proposed that some neurotics' love of watches was related to a subconscious longing for the mother's breast with the ticking representing heart beats.

It was in Münsterlingen he became interested in reflexive hallucinations and began his work on the treatise Über Reflexhalluzonationen und verwandte Erscheinungen. His supervisor in this work was Eugen Bleuler (1857-1939).

In 1912, having finished his doctoral dissertation, sur les hallucinations-réflexes et les phénomènes associés he moved to Russia with his wife Olga in 1913. Although he obtained a well paid position in a fashionable asylum, he remained in Russia for only seven months. This was probably caused by his wish to pursue his more scientific interest, something he could not do in this position.

Back in Switzerland in 1914 he had no choice but to accept a position at the Waldau psychiatric clinic near Bern. Rorschach’s wife was detained from leaving Russia by a declaration of war and did not rejoin him in Switzerland until the spring of 1915. Mrs. Rorschach’s explanation for her husband’s return to Switzerland was that "in spite of his interest in Russia and the Russians, he remained a true Swiss, attached to his native land.... He was European and intended to remain so at any price.

Hermann and Olga Rorschach had two children, a boy born 1917, and a girl born in 1919.

There was a saying amongst psychiatric residents of the day " if you want to eat well, go to Friedmatt; if you want to sleep well, go to Waldau; if you want to learn well, go to Burghölzli". The latter was the main university clinic in Zurich and was were Eugen Bleuler taught.

Towards the end of 1915 Rorschach was appointed associate director of the asylum at Herisau, in the eastern part of Switzerland, close to the Austrian border. He remained here until his premature death in 1922.

In Herisau Rorschach faced a rather heavy workload. The hospital had room for some 300 patients, yet there were only two psychiatrist, the director and the associate director of the clinic. There were no social workers or secretaries, and at the beginning, no subordinate physicians. Here he introduced a course of lectures for the nursing staff, the first of its kind in Switzerland.

Despite his business in the daily routine of the hospital, Rorschach found time for his interest in the psychoanalysis and psychopathology in religion. While investigating some of the strange religious sects in Switzerland, he examined a gentleman called Binggeli who taught his disciples that his penis was sacred and that they should adore it; his urine was called "heaven's drops" or "heaven's balm" and he gave it to them as a medication or instead of the wine for the holy communion. One of his teachings was that the method of expelling demons from young women was to have sexual relations with him! Binggeli was imprisoned for incest with his daughter.

When Rorschach examined the situation more fully he found that the sect was similar to the sect of Anton Unternährer (1759-1824) – the Antonianer - which had existed towards the end of the 18th century and which had also preached the holiness of incest. When he went back through the centuries he found that besides "normal" religious sects, similar aberrant sects which were identical or very similar to those of Binggeli's had been taking place in the same geographic regions aback to the 12th century. When he examined the family three of Binggeli he found that over four centuries, ten relations had played a leading role in these sects.

Then, abruptly his interest in the inkblot test was renewed, when Szyman Hens in 1917 published a doctoral thesis on an inkblot test he had devised with Eugen Bleuler. Hens' technique was similar to the one applied by Rorschach in 1911, as Hens had studied the phantasies of his subjects using inkblot cards.

This led Rorschach to resume his own experiments in 1918, now working frantically. He used altogether 40 cards, but 15 of them much more often than the rest, and he collected the answers to the test from 305 persons, 117 of them non-patients, 188 of them schizophrenous. He showed them the cards and asked the question: "What might this be?" Their subjective responses enabled him to distinguish among his patients on the basis of their perceptive abilities, intelligence, and emotional characteristics.

Rorschach developed ideas and patterns of thoughts which demonstrate an extraordinary degree of originality. He considered the inkblot test a kind of mirror, in which the inkblots constitute optical stimuli which, in the individual, activates kinestetic pictures which are being projected back into the inkblots. It is based upon man's tendency to projects interpretations and emotions into ambiguous stimuli, in this case inkblots. From these keys trained observers may be able to pinpoint deeper personality traits and impulses in the person taking the test.

Several of Rorschach's colleagues, Bleuler not least so, seem to have been very positive to Rorschach's work and encouraged him to publish his findings. His manuscript containing the original version of the test, consisting of 15 cards, was sent to six publishers - who all refused it. Eventually Rorschach in Bern found a publisher who was willing to print the book - on the condition that the number of cards were reduced to ten. In June 1921 the book was finally printed, but the printing quality of the inkblot cards was anything but satisfying. They had been reduced in size, the colours had been altered and the original patches of uniform colour density had been reproduced with a varying degree of saturation. In this way a very important variable was included in the text, the so-called shading qualities of the pattern. It is these ten cards that are presently being used and are known as the Rorschach test.

The potential sources of inspiration for the use of inkblots as a means to study personality were many. Alfred Binet (1857-1911) had reported on experimentation with inkblots as a test of creativity in the early twentieth century. Even before that, in Germany, Justinus Kerner had published Kleksographien, a book of inkblot-inspired poems in 1857. Kerner, a physician and a painter of some repute, had produced inkblots "through chance" by folding a piece of paper on which some ink had been dropped. He then wrote poems inspired by each of the inkblots. The published book was well received in German-speaking countries and was probably known to Rorschach.

His book Psychodiagnostik represents Rorschach's masterpiece, but the publication was a total disaster. The entire edition remained unsold, and those few who showed some interest, were almost hostile in their critics. The publisher, Bircher, went bankrupt shortly afterwards. Rorschach was somewhat depressed, but far from knocked out. In a lecture to the Swiss psychoanalytic society in February 1922, one month after publication, he spoke of a further development of his test. But fate decided otherwise. On April 1st, 1922, Hermann Rorschach was hospitalised after a week of abdominal pains, probably caused by a ruptured appendix. An explorative laparotomy was performed, but the condition proved to be inoperable, and Rorschach died of peritonitis the following day, only 37 years of age.

In 1927, Hans Huber founded his own publishing house and he purchased Psychodiagnostics out of the inventory of Ernst Bircher. Since 1927 Hans Huber has been the publisher of Psychodiagnostik. Even today, each reprinting of the plates themselves requires great attention, and is done on what can now only be regarded as ancient equipment, which is carefully maintained exclusively for this purpose, so as to maintain a virtually identical reproduction of the originals. Even the weather has to be taken into account, and if it is too humid, or too dry, the printing process has to be rescheduled.

When the Swiss psychoanalytic society had been founded in 1919 with Emil Oberholzer, Zulliger, and Pfister, Rorschach was elected vice president, and gave several lectures at the scientific meetings of the organisation. His work won international respect and an institute was founded in his name in New York in 1939.

Rorschach was described as having an attractive personality, a cultivated, brilliant and profound conversationalist. Although somewhat reserved, he was a man of great benevolence to those closest to him.

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