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  • Karl A. Menninger, M.D.:A Personal Perspective
  • Robert S. Wallerstein

Karl Menninger was a towering figure in American psychiatry and psychiatric education through the middle of the twentieth century, and played a major role in propagating the psychoanalytic idea within educated American circles. This account is written from the perspective of seventeen years in Topeka, Kansas (1949–1966), at the Menninger School of Psychiatry, the Topeka Institute of Psychoanalysis, and on the staff of The Menninger Foundation, during which years the author had close continuing contact with "Dr. Karl," as he was called. The author describes Karl Menninger in what he feels to be his areas of real greatness, and also with his inevitable human frailties.

When Erik Erikson died, the International Journal of Psychoanalysis asked me to write his obituary, which I did (Wallerstein 1995). In that piece, I said that Erikson was one of two people I had known well and had worked with closely whom I regarded as an authentic genius. A not infrequent response to that statement by friends and colleagues was the question, "Who was the other one?" My answer was, "Karl Menninger," which generally drew a somewhat puzzled acknowledgment. So I welcome the opportunity afforded me by American Imago, not to comment on the manuscript by Virginia Pruitt and Howard Faulkner—an account of Karl Menninger as revealed by hitherto unpublished correspondence—but to lay my own account, based on my seventeen years in Topeka (1949–1966) alongside it. Mine is a very personal perspective, as accurate as my memory can make it, with the events in which I did not personally participate as correctly recounted as I was informed of them.

I came into psychiatry in 1949 and knew somehow of The Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, as the premier psychiatric training facility in the United States. I wrote to an old [End Page 213] internship comrade and close friend who had gotten out of the U.S. Army before I did and was already a psychiatric resident in Topeka, inquiring about the program at The Menninger School of Psychiatry. He responded enthusiastically, urging me to come, and I decided to do so. So my wife, Judy, and I drove into Topeka, Kansas, on a blistering hot June 30, 1949, with all our family belongings, our clothes, some books, and some phonograph records in the car, ready to start the residency on the following day. We were met by a huge billboard, almost bestriding the highway, erected by the Topeka Chamber of Commerce. It said simply: "Welcome to Topeka, Kansas, the psychiatric capital of the world." Thus our entrée into that psychiatric mecca where, at that time, 100 of the 800 psychiatric residents in the entire nation were in training, one out of every eight in the country in that small town on the Kansas prairie.

This was the world of Karl Menninger. The residency was primarily at the 1,000–bed Winter Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital, 900 of them being psychiatric beds, plus its very active outpatient psychiatric clinic. There was also a far smaller cadre of residents at the Menninger Clinic itself, one of the first small psychoanalytic sanitaria in the nation, modeled after the first such institution in the world, the Tegel Sanitarium, created in the 1920s in Berlin, Germany, by the pioneering first-generation psychoanalyst, Ernst Simmel. C. F. Menninger, Dr. Karl's (unless you knew him very well, he was always Dr. Karl) father, a general medical practitioner, had long been enamored by what a father and his sons had created in small-town Rochester, Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic and later Mayo Foundation, and he was inspired to try to do the same in Topeka. So his sons were sent off to medical school, and when Karl, the eldest, returned to Kansas from the Harvard Medical School, where he had been inaugurated into the lure of psychiatry by Ernest Elmer Southard, the father said that they could now start their clinic. Karl was reputed to have said, "Yes, but it will have to be a psychiatric clinic." And the father, who knew a strong-minded son when he saw one, was said to have replied...


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