Adolf Meyer

From New World Encyclopedia

Adolf Meyer (September 13, 1866 – March 17, 1950) was a Swiss-born American psychiatrist who became one of the most influential figures in American psychiatry in the first half of the twentieth century. He rose to prominence as the president of the American Psychiatric Association.

Meyer pioneered the application of Freudian ideas in American psychiatry, suggesting that mental illness should be understood as a disorder of the personality rather than brain pathology. Meyer emphasized the need of collecting detailed case histories on patients, recognizing the role of the social environment in the development of mental disorders. His work, and that of his wife in visiting and interviewing the families of his patients, was the beginning of psychiatric social work. Although Meyer's efforts to introduce new terminology, with the exception of the term "mental hygiene," were not successful, many of his ideas remain and guide the field. In particular, his view that the patient be viewed as a whole person, physical and mental, both in diagnosis and treatment is foundational to the success of holistic approaches in mental health.


Meyer was born in Niederwenigen, near Zürich, Switzerland, the son of a Zwinglian minister. Meyer was trained in neurobiology and neurophysiology at the University of Zürich. He received his M.D. in 1892, after studying psychiatry with Auguste-Henri Forel at the Burghölzli Mental Hospital. He also studied in England with Hughlings Jackson and in Paris with Jean-Martin Charcot. Meyer subsequently began his professional career as a neuropathologist.

Mayer hoped to obtain a teaching position at the University of Zürich, but unsuccessful, he emigrated to the United States in 1892. He first practiced neurology and taught at the University of Chicago, where he was exposed to the ideas of the Chicago functionalists. From 1893 to 1895 he served as pathologist at the newly founded Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane at Kankakee, Illinois. He then worked at the state hospital at Worcester, Massachusetts (1895–1902), all the while publishing papers in neurology, neuropathology, and psychiatry.

In 1902, Meyer became director of the Pathological Institute of the New York State Hospital system (shortly afterwards given the name The Psychiatric Institute). In the next few years he shaped much of American psychiatry by emphasizing the importance of keeping detailed patient records and by introducing Emil Kraepelin's classificatory system. While in the New York State Hospital system Meyer also adopted Freud's ideas about the importance both of sexuality and of the formative influence of early childhood experiences on the adult personality.

Meyer became professor of psychiatry at Cornell University in 1904, where he stayed until 1909. From 1909 to 1941 he was professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine where he also served as director of the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic from its inception in 1913. Under his leadership the clinic became an internationally renowned training center for psychiatrists.

Meyer died on March 17, 1950, in Baltimore, Maryland.


Meyer never adhered to any particular school of psychiatry. He approach was eclectic, greatly influenced by Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, and combining together the contributions of biology, physiology, psychology, and neurology into one practical approach to mental health science.

He called his approach "psychobiology," with the goal of integrating the psychological and biological studies of human beings. To stress the dynamic nature of mental disorders, he invented a new system of classification, "ergasiology," based on the Greek root erg (from ergon, work). Typical terms in this system were "ergasiatry" (psychiatry), "oligergasia" (idiocy), and "merergasia" (hysteria).

To make an accurate diagnosis of the problems his patients experienced, Meyer tried to take into account all relevant biological, psychological, and social factors. He thus emphasized collecting detailed case histories for patients, paying particular attention to the social and environmental background of the patient's upbringing. He looked into the patient's physical condition, past history, family life, work situation, and other facts that were relevant to treatment. Meyer believed that mental illness resulted from personality dysfunction, rather than brain pathology. He introduced some of the ideas of Sigmund Freud, such as the role of childhood sexuality in the development of mental disorders in adulthood.

Meyer’s wife, Mary Potter Brooks, participated in the work of her husband. She was the one who collected data about the patients. She visited them in their homes to observe their everyday life, talked to their families, and worked up detailed case records. In this manner Meyers pioneered the path of psychiatric social work, an essential part of a psychiatric treatment today.

Meyer was a strong believer in the importance of empiricism, and advocated repeatedly for a scientific approach to understanding mental illness. He introduced the possibility of infections (then viewed as the cutting edge concept of scientific medicine) being a biological cause of behavioral abnormalities, in contrast to eugenic theories that emphasized heredity and to Freud's theories of childhood traumas.

It was Meyer who suggested the term "mental hygiene" to Clifford Beers, who himself had recovered from manic-depressive disorder. Beers later founded, with the support of Meyer and William James, the Connecticut Society for Mental Hygiene (1908) and the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (1909). The mental hygiene movement sought to improve the quality of care for the mentally ill, to prevent mental illness if at all possible, and to educate the public concerning mental health.


Meyer wrote no books; his pervasive influence on American psychiatry stemmed instead from his numerous published papers, his prestige, and his students, both at Manhattan State Hospital and, especially, at Johns Hopkins University. Many of his students went on to make significant contributions to American psychiatry or psychoanalysis, though not necessarily as Meyerians. Most of the founders of the New York Psychoanalytic Society had worked under Meyer at Manhattan State Hospital, including its chief architect Abraham Arden Brill.

Always eclectic and willing to absorb ideas from whatever sources he found relevant, Meyer never formed his own discrete school of thought with disciples. Though Meyer's own system of nomenclature never caught on, his ideas, especially those emphasizing the importance of social factors, and his insistence on understanding the life of the patient through careful interviewing, exerted considerable influence in psychiatry in America and other countries.


  • Meyer, Adolf. 1948. The Commonsense Psychiatry of Dr. Adolf Meyer: Fifty-two Selected Papers. Ayer Co. Publishers. ISBN 0405052162
  • Meyer, Adolf. [1950] 1952. The Collected Papers of Adolf Meyer. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Meyer, Adolf. 1957. Psychobiology: A Science of Man. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Burnham, John C. 1967. Psychoanalysis and American Medicine, 1894-1917: Medicine, Science, and Culture. New York: International Universities Press.
  • Burnham, John C. 1977. "Adolf Meyer" in International Encyclopedia of Psychiatry, Psychology, Psychoanalysis, & Neurology, pp. 215-216. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company for Aesculapius Publishers. ISBN 9992998830
  • Gach, John. 1980. "Culture & Complex: On the Early History of Psychoanalysis in America" in Essays in the History of Psychiatry, pp. 135-160. Columbia, SC: William S. Hall Psychiatric Institute.
  • Leys, Ruth and Rand B. Evans. 1990. Defining American Psychology: The Correspondence between Adolf Meyer and Edward Bradford Titchener. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801838657
  • Lidz, Theodore. 1966. "Adolf Meyer and the Development of American Psychiatry." The American Journal of Psychiatry 123(3): 320-332.

External links

All links retrieved June 15, 2023.


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