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The Holistic Gaze in German Medicine, 1890-1930
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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74.3 (2000) 495-524

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The Holistic Gaze in German Medicine, 1890-1930

Michael Hau *



This work deals with a particular kind of medical gaze--not with the dissecting, analytical gaze described by Michel Foucault in his book Birth of the Clinic on eighteenth-century France, 1 but with a different kind: the synthesizing gaze of physicians in turn-of-the-century Germany. In the decades between 1890 and 1930, a growing number of German physicians maintained that the hallmark of a superior physician and healer was his intuitive gaze, a gaze that allowed him to capture the essence and individual qualities of a human constitution in a holistic way. As I argue, the synthetic gaze reflected epistemological principles that were attractive for physicians for several reasons: the holistic gaze was reminiscent of the aesthetic gaze of the male educated bourgeois (Bildungsbürger), and only a physician who shared the aesthetic sensibilities of the Bildungsbürgertum could truly judge whether a person was normal, healthy, and beautiful.

According to some physicians, a healthy and beautiful body was characterized by the harmonious and purposeful interaction of its constituent parts. At the core of their claim for a holistic gaze was the ability to "see," [End Page 495] to grasp intuitively the essence of human beings in their constitutional individuality. Such holistic assumptions were similar to the aesthetic assumptions of the Gebildeten in that the human organism, similar to a piece of art, was to be judged as a coherent whole. However, physicians advocating a holistic gaze did not always reject the analytical methodology of the natural sciences; instead, they proposed a combination of analytical and holistic approaches and implicitly argued for an understanding of Wissenschaft that conceived medicine at the intersection of the natural sciences and the humanities. 2

Since the synthetic gaze of these German physicians was for the most part a masculine gaze, some of their writings on physical beauty and on medicine as an art reflected contemporary male gender anxieties. Such anxieties have to be interpreted in the context of the regendering of social spaces from the turn of the century onward, and of the images of the New Woman who demanded access to the professions, who conquered the public spaces of urban shopping and amusement districts, and who seemed to defy traditional gender roles and sexual mores. 3 Not only did these developments contribute to an outspoken antifeminist movement, 4 turn-of-the-century medical discourse also reflected and reinforced contemporary fears concerning masculinized women and feminized men. 5

While there are some recent studies on holistic approaches in psychology, medicine, and the life sciences, none of these explores the multiple meanings of the synthetic gaze in turn-of-the-century German medicine. 6 [End Page 496] In this paper I examine features of the holistic gaze in Wilhelmine and Weimar medicine. The first section focuses on aspects of the communication of regular physicians with the educated public during the Empire. As members of the educated middle class, physicians defended the traditional aesthetic of the Bildungsbürgertum by claiming unique intuitive abilities based on a holistic gaze. Some invoked this gaze not only in addressing an educated public, but also in conflicts within the medical profession between holistically oriented clinicians and the proponents of modern laboratory medicine. As a result of historians' emphasis on the spectacular successes of bacteriology and laboratory medicine, the methods of those German physicians who continued to emphasize a holistic and intuitive approach in medical diagnosis have largely been ignored. 7

Before World War I, the synthetic gaze made it possible for physicians to defend the traditional aesthetics that informed German Kultur. For the most part they addressed an educated lay public. During the Weimar years, they found themselves confronted with the realities of a democratic mass society. In the big hygiene exhibitions of the 1920s and 1930s that took place in Düsseldorf and Dresden, they addressed an audience that transcended the narrow circles of the Gebildeten. Physicians who worried about the...