Sabina Spielrein: biography of this psychiatrist and psychoanalyst

Sabina Spielrein was a Russian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst life is interesting and at the same time tragic.

From a difficult childhood and even worse into adulthood, this researcher was one of the first women to study a university degree, to dedicate herself to psychiatry and to be a pioneer in the field of educational science. In this article we will discuss your story through a brief biography of Sabina Spielrein.

    Biography of Sabina Spielrein

    Let’s look at the life trajectory of Spielrein, who is distinguished by his intellectual brilliance and, at the same time, the harshness of his family relations and also with one of his lovers.

    first years

    Sabina Naftulovna Spielrein was born on November 7, 1885 in Rostov, Russia, to a traditional upper-class Jewish family.

    While it was normal in the city of Rostov for wealthy families to take their children to French schools, Sabina’s parents chose to send her to a more alternative and innovative primary school. In this school, the pedagogical approach was enlightened and liberal, And stands out from the traditional Russian-French education in which the elites indoctrinate their children.

    From a young age, Sabina Spielrein was a passionate student, having a deep knowledge of music and speaking up to four languages: English, French, German and Yiddish, a language which would serve to acquire, later, the mastery of the ‘Biblical Hebrew. But despite being intellectually very restless and performing very well in high school, she was also a naughty girl, who was being punished.

    At eleven years old was admitted to the Yekaterinskaya gymnasium, a high school in high demand.

    Psychiatric internment and contact with psychoanalysis

    The childhood and adolescence of Sabina Spielrein were marked by relationships with her rather rude parents. Her dad put a lot of pressure on her to get good grades, In addition to forcing her to practice piano, violin and singing.

    It was probably all this family pressure that caused young Sabina to end up being emotionally oversaturated, which caused her, at the age of 18, to need to be hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic, far from his native Russia, in Switzerland. She was treated at the Burghölzli Psychiatric Hospital, belonging to the University of Zurich. He would stay there from August 17, 1904 to June 1, 1905.

    Spielrein’s childhood, marked by stress and high demands, led him to present depressive attacks in adulthood as well as acute psychotic episodes.

    It is curious that being a psychiatric patient began to show interest in studying medicine and exploring mental disorders. In fact, the figure of Carl Gustav Jung, who looked after her, inspired her to opt for this profession. Jung treated Spielrein by applying newly developed psychoanalytic techniques to treat hysteria, a disorder that Sabina is said to have manifested.

    According to the Swiss psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, Spielrein’s parents were hysterical.. The father encountered the profile of an impulsive and angry person, in addition to being a physical and psychological abuser, while his mother was described as a child woman.

    After conducting relevant analyzes of Spielrein’s life trajectory prior to being hospitalized, Jung completed treatment with the young woman which turned out to be successful. However, Jung and Spielrein’s relationship changed from being a therapist-patient to being a lover.

      professional training

      After recovering, and taking advantage of the fact that he was in the city of Zurich, Spielrein began his medical studies at the University of this same city, Although not without leaving the Burghölzli clinic at the moment.

      The University of Zurich was one of the first to welcome women among its students, which makes it a real attraction for those who wish to obtain a university degree, especially from Russia.

      Sabina Spielrein was not the only Russian student at the university; but, thanks to her admission to the hospital, she had been able to improve her level of German, making her really proficient in writing medical documents in that language, which gave her an advantage over her fellow Slavs.

      Spielrein graduated in medicine in 1911, defending a thesis on a case of schizophrenia called Über den psychologischen Inhalt eines Falles von Schizophrenie (On psychological content in a case of schizophrenia).

      Eugen Bleuler supervised his thesis, And turns out to be one of the first theoretical contributions to the approach, from a psychoanalytic perspective, of patients with schizophrenia.

      The formative years are a bit dark for Spielrein. Despite being an excellent student, he’s had his emotional ups and downs. Moreover, she was still in love with Jung, who was a married man. It was difficult for him to accept this reality, despite the desire to have a child with the psychoanalyst. After accepting this, he decides to leave for Munich, where he will spend a few months studying art history.

      Later he was already an important person in psychoanalysis, Spielrein she was elected member of the Wiener Psychoanalyrische Vereinigung.

      In this association, he presented his thesis on the drive for destruction, entitled Destruktion ALS Ursache des Werdens (Destruction as the cause of happening).

      Years after college

      In 1912 she married Pavel Scheftel, a Russian doctor also of Jewish descent, leaving behind his scene being Jung’s lover. From this marriage he had two daughters, Renate and Eva.

      In the following years, he will devote himself to clinical work from a psychoanalytic approach in several Germanic cities, such as Vienna and Berlin, but settling a little in Geneva, Switzerland. the he started working in the laboratory of Édouard Claparède.

      During his stay in Geneva, Spielrein focused on topics related to pedagogy and evolutionary psychology, giving lectures on psychoanalysis applied to children at the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute.

      In 1922 he had contact with another of the most important figures of 20th century psychology, Jean Piaget, She is his psychoanalyst. Then, in 1923, Sabina Spielrein returned to Russia, which had already become a Soviet socialist republic. There he became a member of the Russian Psychoanalytic Association, in addition to working as an outpatient as a doctor.

      In Moscow, he worked in an educational institution, popularly known as the “white infirmary”, where the idea of ​​raising children as free people was promoted as soon as possible. It is for this reason that the Soviet government chose to close this center, because any sample of individualistic thought within the borders of the newly created Soviet Union was something very frowned upon by the Communist authorities.

      The Soviet government itself falsely accused the institution, Indicating that in his sexual perversions in children were carried out.

      last years

      In 1936, the Soviet Union definitively banned pedagogy, so that Spielrein no longer had the legal license to pursue this discipline and she was forced to choose to be a doctor in public schools.

      In addition, psychoanalysis was banned in the union in the 1930s, although Sabina Spielrein continued to work with this current until 1940.

      It was during this decade that things got particularly rough for Spielrein. Her husband Pavel died in 1937 of a heart attack and her three brothers were arrested and forced to work in gulags. during Stalin’s Great Purge (1936-1938). Sabina’s father died in 1938 of unknown causes, although an intervention by the government.

      The reasons why the Spielreins suffered this fate have to do with the intention to eliminate any perspective not conforming to the Stalinist regime, this family being strongly influenced by foreign currents.

      Luckily for Sabina, she wouldn’t be purged, but that didn’t stop her from having an end as tragic as her brothers’, but this time the executioners were Germans.

      In August 1942 the city of Rostov was occupied by Hitler Deutsche Wehrmacht, and Sabina and her two daughters were killed., Like many other Jewish citizens of the city.

      Contributions and importance of Sabina Spielrein

      Sabina Spielrein’s main contribution to psychoanalysis is his concept of the destructive and sadistic drive, Which led Freud himself to postulate the existence of the death instinct, that is to say the tendency to want to generate more harm than good. This concept makes sense if you look at it from the perspective of the era in which they lived, marked by war, anti-Semitism and genocide.

      Another interesting contribution of Spielrein, made before leaving for Vienna, is his study of a case of schizophrenia, in particular that of a very deteriorated woman, with delusions with contents of death and decay. In this case, Spielrein hypothesized that behind these delusions were hidden two apparently antagonistic tendencies: on the one hand, their tendency to destruction, to want to die, while on the other there was a marked sexual drive.

      Spielrein’s personal history, as well as his scientific production, made him a figure of great importance in psychoanalysis, although eclipsed by the figures of Freud and Jung and, above all, for having had a relationship with him, the most famous for his loves than for his considerable work. Despite this, Spielrein is credited with being one of the earliest psychoanalytic authors, as well as being a pioneer in the use of what in his day was a newly created neologism, the term schizophrenia.

      Her interest in child psychology made her a pioneer in the field of developmental psychology., To be also one of the first authors to link the Freudian postulates to the development of language.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Spielrein, S. (1911). On the psychological content of a case of schizophrenia (praecox dementia). Yearbook of psychoanalytic and psychopathological research 3: 329-400.
      • Spielrein, S. (1912). Destruction as the cause of the event. Yearbook of psychoanalytic and psychopathological research 4: 465-503.
      • Alnaes, K. (2004). The true story of Sabina Spielrein. Madrid: Siruela Publishing.
      • Kerr, J. (1995). The Secret History of Psychoanalysis. Barcelona: Editorial review.
      • Simón Macías, Trinidad (2014). Fair play. Sabina Spielrein between Jung and Freud and modern times. Clinical psychiatry.
      • Fonts Vaixell, M., Martínez Alonso, B., Piñeiro Garcia, S., and Estret Saura, T .. (2008). Biography of Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942): a history of the early years of psychoanalysis. Journal of the Spanish Association of Neuropsychiatry, 28 (1), 109-117. Retrieved January 1, 2020 from

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