A German by birth, Griesinger— the first systematic organicist in psychiatry—received his medical degree at Zurich. After studying for two years in a mental hospital, he devoted himself to general practice and research in physiology, specializing in brain disturbances. In the following years he wrote numerous articles, edited a journal on physiological treatment, and at the age of twenty-eight published an influential textbook, Pathology and Therapy of Psychic Disorders (1845). Through this book, as well as his subsequent research, teaching, and clinical activities in Berlin, he established himself as the major spokesman for the somatic point of view in psychiatry, which held that all mental illness could be explained on the basis of brain pathology. Through his great prestige and the power of his intellect, Griesinger helped to counteract the romantic, semitheo- logical orientation which had dominated German psychiatry for centuries. Even though his writings indicated that he was aware of psychodynamics, he ignored this approach entirely in making diagnoses, since in his eyes only organic factors were significant. He characterized psychological reactions as reflex actions, and one type of cause, brain disease, was invoked for all disorders ranging from general paresis to hysteria. Unfortunately he presented few facts to document his position, and often fell back on dogmatic pronouncements instead. To give one example, when a controversy over the etiology of general paresis arose in 1857, he vehemently opposed the suggestion made by Esmarch and lessen that the disease was caused by syphilitic infection, and asserted that more men than women were afflicted because of their “more frequent excesses in spiritous liquors” and perhaps because of the use of“strong cigars and strong coffee.” As far as he was concerned, that settled the matter.In spite of his limitations, Griesinger had a constructive effect on the psychiatry of his time. He helped to establish the principle of nonrestraint in German mental institutions during a period when it was a subject of heated debate in America as well as Europe. He was instrumental in making these institutions centers for research in which physicians sought to determine the origin, cause, and outcome of mental disease. And even though his somatic approach to mental illness was one-sided, it had the effect of encouraging physicians to see their patients as persons who were ill and to view mental disease as treatable and curable. In short, he helped to bring psychiatry within the field of medical research, and stimulated a course of action which ultimately led to important discoveries in brain pathology and the physical treatment of mental illness, an approach which is very much alive today. See ORGANICISM.

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "GRIESINGER, WILHELM (1817— 68)," in, November 28, 2018, (accessed September 29, 2022).


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