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Franz Alexander and Psychosomatic Medicine

Franz Alexander, besides being one of the most notable representatives of psychoanalysis during the 20th century, helped to lay the foundations of psychosomatic medicine.

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Franz Alexander was one of the most notable representatives of psychoanalysis in the 20th century. He is considered, with certain qualms, the father of psychosomatic medicine and the pioneer of psychoanalysis applied to criminology. His was one of the most interesting contributions to the classical theory of Sigmund Freud.

So great was the prestige that he came to have at the time, that Raymond de Saussure himself was psychoanalyzed with him. So did one of the sons of Sigmund Freud and Marianne Kris. However, the true fame of Franz Alexander occurred when he moved to the United States, where he achieved enormous notoriety.

“Culture is the product of human leisure, and not the sweat of his brow.”

-Franz Alexander-

Alexander was a disciplined student of classical psychoanalysis. However, over time he left his own mark on that current, departing substantially from several of Freud’s central concepts. His contributions to psychotherapy and psychiatry are still valid.

Franz Alexander and his beginnings

Franz Alexander was born in Hungary on January 22, 1891. He studied at the University of Budapest and at age 22 he obtained his medical degree. Later he completed his training at the University of Göttingen and the Physiological Institute of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom. During the First World War he was a bacteriologist at the service of the Austro-Hungarian army.

Later he worked in the neuropsychiatric clinic, attached to the University of Budapest. There he knows and is deeply interested in the work of Freud. In 1920 he emigrated to Germany. In Berlin he became the first student of the Institute of psychoanalysis. There he analyzed with Hanns Sachs and became a psychoanalyst. Then he worked as a professor of psychoanalysis at the same institute.

At that time he published his work Total Personality Analysis, which caught Freud’s attention. Around 1930 he was invited by Robert Hutchins to join as a professor at the University of Chicago, in the United States. Alexander accepted and shortly afterwards founded and directed the Institute of Psychoanalysis of Chicago for 25 years.

Psychosomatic medicine

With the presence of Franz Alexander, the University of Chicago became the first educational center in the United States to investigate in the field of psychosomatic medicine. During the following years, Alexander made a treatise on psychosomatic medicine, another on psychoanalysis and another on psychotherapy. In the First World Congress of Psychiatry, held in 1959 in Paris, he presided over those same sections.

Although Franz Alexander was not the first to apply psychoanalysis to medicine, he did become the foremost exponent of psychosomatic medicine, inspired by Freudian principles. In particular he gained notoriety with his studies on the ulcers grafttroduodenal. He managed to show that this condition originated in a lack of tenderness during childhood.

The discovery of this important influence of the unconscious on physical health, also led him to rethink the method and the duration of the analytical process. On the other hand, he managed to clarify the difference between conversion disorders and psychosomatic illnesses, something that in his time was not very defined.

The second generation of psychoanalysis

Franz Alexander is considered one of the most outstanding exponents of the so-called “second generation of psychoanalysis”. He collected much of the contributions of Sandor Ferenczi. Many of his points of view were exposed in a work that is already considered a classic: psychoanalytic therapy. It is a work that has guided several generations of psychoanalysts.

Alexander also introduced the concept of “corrective emotional experience”. This reforms the typical care model of psychoanalysis. It is based on four basic actions:

  • Bring the patient to relive past situations that could not be resolved to address them in more favorable conditions.
  • The patient must express himself freely and establish with the analyst a transferential relationship that is far from the logic of the links with his parents.
  • The psychoanalyst must help the patient by offering him a new perspective on past events.
  • If the analyst is logical and healthy, the patient will dismiss the inadequate answers to his reality.

Franz Alexander advocated for the “Short-term psychotherapy”, or brief psychotherapy, something that completely removed him from classical psychoanalysis. He also applied his analyzes to criminology, sociology, politics and aesthetics. He died in Palm Springs, California, in 1964, after being a prolific writer and an investigator who left his mark.

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