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  • Adolf Meyer: Psychiatric Anarchist
  • S. Nassir Ghaemi (bio)

Meyer, biopsychosocial model, Jaspers, pluralism, philosophy, psychiatry

They had weekly lunches in 1920s New York City: In one door stepped a stooped philosopher, with a mustache and a twinkle, perhaps ruminating on some recent Marxist theory; in the other door came the elegant Swiss physician, goateed and erudite. Every week, for a time, John Dewey (leader of American pragmatism) and Adolf Meyer (dean of mid-twentieth century American psychiatry and long-time chair of the Johns Hopkins psychiatry department) lunched together and, somewhere in those conversations—one might imagine—the field of philosophy and psychiatry was born (Meyer 1948, 152).

Yet pragmatism—as a proper school of philosophy—does not capture Meyer’s psychiatry. Rather, the core of his thinking, in my view, is to be found in a vague term that deserves analysis: eclecticism.


It has been said that eclecticism is a vice in theory but a virtue in practice (Stone 1981), which highlights why so many are attracted to it. Deep down, practitioners just want to be free: They believe that their freedom of choice will tailor treatments best to patients and thus result in best outcomes. As a conceptual theory for psychiatry, eclecticism is a model that views any theory or method as potentially correct, but no theory or method as definitively incorrect. There is no way to avoid an “anything goes” practice with eclecticism: It is—to use a political analogy—an anarchism of mind.

William James once remarked that the basis for all philosophies lies in the personalities of philosophers. So it was with Meyer’s eclecticism: congenial personally, he seemed congenitally incapable of disagreeing with any person. Any idea, even the most unusual, would receive a respectful hearing from Meyer. (Double brings out new, excellent documentary evidence of this extreme indecision in the drafts of Meyer’s unsent letters to the behaviorist John Watson.) Although quaint and commendable pedagogically, this excessive open mindedness left American psychiatry—so dependent on Meyer—prey to hard-headed biological radicals and psychoanalytic dogmatists. This is where his eclecticism failed us.

Enabling Biological Extremism

Meyer played a key role in legitimizing extreme biological approaches. In addition to his interest in insulin coma (which Double mentions), Meyer enabled the popularization of colectomy and frontal [End Page 341] lobotomy. Psychiatric colectomy, developed by Henry Cotton, was based on the focal toxin theory of mental illness—the idea that mental illness was caused by toxins released by bacteria in the body, the specific locations of which where were the colon and rotted teeth. In one hundred case reports, with mostly short-term follow-up, published in his prominent text, The Defective Delinquent and Insane (Cotton 1921), Cotton laid out his case, which Meyer legitimized by writing a generous foreword. Meyer’s authority was powerful enough to render Cotton’s limited evidence base much more credible than it might otherwise have been. In the 1920s and 1930s, tens of thousands colectomies and full mouth teeth extractions were conducted in patients with mental illness. (Meyer himself sometimes recommended it).1

The other biological extremist story is more famous. In a 1936 conference, with Meyer in attendance, the neurologist Walter Freeman presented, for the first time, cases of refractory schizophrenia treated with a new method: frontal lobotomy. Psychoanalyst attendees protested that Freeman was proposing nothing more than mutilation of the brain; yet Meyer intervened in favor of Free-man (“I am not antagonistic to this work, but find it very interesting” [El-Hai 2005]). Unfortunately, Freeman, like Cotton, was a dogmatist: Over time, he performed frontal lobotomy more and more extensively, not just as a treatment of last resort in the most ill schizophrenics (as in the first cases presented to Meyer), but later as a treatment of first resort for the mildest mood disorders. (By 1950 Freeman had personally conducted 2400 transorbital lobotomies, an “office procedure” that allowed him to lobotomize a patient in 15 minutes [El-Hai 2005]).2

Lest my critique of Meyer in that era be seen as a Whiggish interpretation of history (the claim that we are so much smarter than those shrinks of the past; in fact I think...


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