Wilhelm Griesinger

Born 1817
Died 1868

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German psychiatrist and neurologist, born July 29, 1817, Stuttgart; died October 26, 1868.

Biography of Wilhelm Griesinger

Wilhelm Griesinger was the son of the Stiftungsverwalter (hospital manager) Gottfried Ferdinand Griesinger and his wife Karoline Luise, née Dürr. As a child he was a friend of Wilhelm Roser (1817-1888), Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich (1815-1877) and Sigmund Schott. Wilhelm Griesinger first received private tuition before he entered the Gymnasium. A precocious child and already familiar with literature, he was not an easy pupil, but passed the Abitur in 1834, aged sixteen.

That same year he entered the University of Tübingen as a medical student. Wunderlich by then had studied medicine at the university for one year, and Roser entered half a year later. All three of them were politically engaged in a Burschenschaft, which evidently continued to exist in secrecy after such societies had been officially prohibited.

Griesinger was not impressed by what his teachers had to offer, stating that he would rather read Johannes Müller (1801-1858), than the obsolete dictates of his teachers. He also read Gabriel Andral’s (1797-1876) Traité d’anatomie pathologique (3 volumes, Paris, 1829) in order to substitute what the university could not deliver. Roser, too, was also highly critical of the conditions at the medical faculty.

A conflict with the teachers caused Griesinger and Robert Julius Meyer to receive the Consilium abeundi (expelled) for one year. In another act of disobedience Griesinger went to the University of Zurich, although this was forbidden by the Bundestag. Here he studied under Johann Lukas Schönlein(1793-1864), already being familiar with Schönlein’s Allgemeine und Specielle Pathologie (1832). Griesinger was particularly impressed by Schönlein’s bedside teaching.

Back in Tübingen he passed the Examina and obtained his doctorate with a dissertation on diphteriae (59: Garotillo) which has been lost. He subsequently went on a study trip to Paris, where he met François Magendie (1783-1855) and expanded his clinical knowledge. In 1839 he settled in practice in Friedrichshafen on the Bodensee, but already the following year he seized the opportunity to assume a position as assistant at the lunatic asylum in the royal castle of Winnethal under the directorship of Ernst Albert von Zeller (1804-1877). During the two years he spent here, he gathered a wealth of experience which became the foundation for his famous textbook on mental diseases, first published in 1845.

After two years in Winnethal, Griesinger once more went to Paris, and from there to Vienna, using Wunderlich’s medical travel guide Wien und Paris (1841). Towards the end of 1842 he once more tried his luck in private practice, this time in Stuttgart, but soon accepted an invitation to take a position as assistant at the medical clinic in Tübingen, headed by his friend Wunderlich.

Here he was habilitated in 1843, becoming extraordinarius of pathology, materia medica and the history of medicine in 1847.

In 1849 he accepted an invitation as director of the policlinic in Kiel, and in 1850 married Josephine von Rom. Because of unfortunate political circumstances, however, he soon decided to accept a promising invitation to Cairo, to assume leadership of the medical school and presidency of the health commission under the khedive Abbas, to whom he became personal physician. Even this position seemed not to satisfy him, and probably his own health also contributed to his return to Stuttgart in 1852. However, his stay in Egypt gave him the motivation for and produced much of the material used in his 1857 book on infectious diseases.

Even this time his stay in Stuttgart as a practitioner was of short duration. In 1854 he became full professor of clinical medicine and succeeded Wunderlich as director of the medical clinic in Tübingen. In this period he wrote his contribution to Virchow’s Handbuch der speziellen Pathologie, the volume on infectious diseases.

Besides his other work, Griesinger again turned his interest towards the care of the mentally ill, and in 1859 he became head of an institution for mentally retarded children in Mariaberg, a small town situated near Gammertingen in southern Germany. This institution, the Heil- und Erziehungsanstalt Mariaberg, now called Die Mariaberger Heime, was founded in 1846, and still serves the purpose of educating and caring for the mentally retarded.

In 1850 the physicians of this institution published the journal Beobachtungen über den Cretinismus. The journal had a short life however. 2 parts in one volume were published in 1850, and only two more parts were published, in 1852. This journal appears to be the first periodical devoted to endocrine disorders.

Due to a conflict over the policlinic, Griesinger in 1860 left Tübingen for the same position in Zürich, where he became a member of the Medizinalkommission, was assigned making the old hospital into a lunatic asylum, and participated in the planning of the new mental hospital, Burghölzli. In Zurich he also demonstrated his interest in health measures for the common people. Due to the high occurrence of lead poisonings in painters, he demanded that measures be taken to protect the painters working on the building and also introduced measures of protection against infectious diseases in the city.

In 1865 Griesinger finally settled in Berlin to assume leadership of the psychiatric clinic, and also of the department of nervous diseases established on his initiative at the Charité. At the same time he was the immediate successor to Moritz Heinrich Romberg (1795-1873) as director of the university policlinic. He resigned the latter position in 1867 in order to concentrate his efforts in a scientific development of psychiatry and reforming the asylum system. In this respect he founded the Medicinisch-psychologische Gesellschaft and the Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten, soon to become one of the world’s leading journals in its field, as is evident from the numerous entries in this work. Specialists from many disciplines flocked to the medical-psychological society, both medical and philosophers.

However, already during the summer of 1868 he fell ill with the symptoms of a paratyphlitis. Following his friend Roser's opening of an abscess of the right hypochondrium came wound diphteria, loss of strength, and progressive paralysis. Death occurred on October 26, 1868. The section confirmed the assumed perforation of the processus vermiformis.

His rational approach to psychology was epoch-making to how such diseases were looked upon. He was the first who dared, and was able to, introduce theoretical views on psychopathic behaviour into medicine, a field until then badly neglected both by psychologists and pathologists. We also owe to Griesinger the introduction into clinical psychiatry of pathological anatomy.

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