Theodor Hermann Meynert

Born 1833
Died 1892

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Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, born June 14, 1833, Dresden; died May 31, 1892, Klosterburg near Vienna.

Biography of Theodor Hermann Meynert

Thanks to Theodor Hermann Meynert the Vienna School came to rival that of the Salpêtrière and Queen’s Square. He inspired the work of Paul Emil Flechsig (1847-1929), Karl Wernicke (1848-1905) and Auguste-Henri Forel (1848-1931), and influenced Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). He may be seen as a prophet of things to come.

Meynert was born in Dresden to a writer and an opera singer. The artistic background and certain Bohemian characteristics never left him. The family moved to Vienna when he was eight. Here he spent long and rather wild student days (those were the days, remember?) and received his medical doctorate in 1861. Sobering down, and driven by an intense desire to emulate his teacher, Karl von Rokitansky (1804-1878), he was habilitated as Dozent in 1865 and then began lecturing on the anatomy and function of the brain. In 1866 he was named prosector of the Wiener Landesirrenanstalt, and in 1870 was appointed director of the psychiatric clinic and extraordinary professor of psychiatry. In 1873 he became full professor of nervous diseases. From 1885 he held the title of Hofrath. He was succeeded in the chair by Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902), remembered for, among many things, coining the term “sadism.”

Meynert's main achievements were in research on the anatomy and the physiology of the brain. He formulated a new theory of brain functions, which he attempted to bring in accord with pathological observations. He is now chiefly remembered for his 1869 description of dorsal tegmental decussation or "fountain decussation".

Meynert’ ideas drew many visitors to Vienna even though he had the reputation of being a poor teacher. Auguste-Henri Forel (1848-1931), who spent seven months (1871-1872) with Meynert at the old insane asylum on Lazarettgasse, had to hold back his great disappointment in Meynert’s lectures and laboratory. His department, Forel relates, was disorderly and filthy, not unlike the Oriental Quarter of Vienna, and through it all romped Meynert’s two children.

Bernard Sachs (1858-1944), as a novice attempting to learn neuroanatomy in Meynert’s laboratory in 1892, found it disconcerting that he had to struggle alone with a series of brain sections for a month before the Master would show the least interest in him. “A very stormy day,” said Sachs to Meynert on greeting him one morning. “I have not yet had time to think about it,” was the reply; and Sachs remarked to himself, “That settled that.” Meynert tried to be amiable to his assistants, but was seldom cordial. Urbanity was a luxury in which his brilliant mind would not allow him to indulge.

Meynert was described as a having a massive head surmounting a short body, a sprawling bushy beard, and mane-like hair which had the habit of falling down into his eyes. He had an expression of melancholy; his wife had died early, and death had robbed him of his seventeen-year old son. Despite his troubles, or perhaps because of them, there was robustness in his poetry, regarded highly by the critics of that day. The same may be said about his drawings of the brain, to be found in the Neurological institute of Vienna to this day.

Meynert was also active as a journalist, being editor of the Wiener Jahrbücher für Psychiatrie as well
as co-publisher of the Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten (Berlin). With Max Leidesdorf (1818-1889) he was co-publisher of Vierteljahrsschrift für Psychiatrie (Neuwied and Leipzig). He was one-year president of the Wiener Verein für Psychiatrie und forensische Psychologie.

“The main function of the central organ is to transmit the fact of existence to an ego gradually shaping itself in the stream of the brain . . . If we look upon the cortex as an organ functioning as a whole then the information that it subserves the processes of the mind is all that can be said . . . to think further about the cortex is impossible and unnecessary . . . But our hope to understand eventually the function of the hemispheres is raised again by the opposite assumption which leads us straight to an organology of the central surface . . . Between these two theoretical possibilities the facts have to decide.”
Der Bau der Grosshirnsrinde und seine örtlichen Verschiedenheiten, nebst einem pathologisch-anatomischen Corollarium.
Translated by Gerhardt von Bonin.

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