Lives of the fellows

William Mayer-Gross

b.15 January 1889 d.15 February 1961
MD Heidelb(1913) LRCPE LRCSE(1939) LRFPS(1939) MRCP(1945) FRCP(1951)

William Mayer-Gross was born the son of a trader, Max Mayer, and his wife, Mathilde (née Gross), in Bingen-am-Rhein. He went to the local preparatory school and later to the Gymnasium in Worms. He studied medicine in Heidelberg, Kiel and Munich, and took his final examinations in Heidelberg in the summer of 1912. He became an assistant under Nissl in the psychiatric clinic at Heidelberg and took his doctorate with a thesis which, under the title ‘Zur Phänomenologie abnormer Glücksgefühle’, was later published (Z. Pathopsychol., 1914,2,588-610).

With the outbreak of the war he was called up and served for a year on the Western Front before being transferred to a base hospital at Heidelberg, in charge of psychiatric wards for soldiers. In 1918 the clinic was taken over by Wilmanns,and Mayer-Gross continued as an assistant with him, with two short interruptions at Klingenmünster and Rheinau (Kanton Zürich), until 1924, when he was appointed deputy director of the clinic and lecturer in psychiatry (Privatdozent).

In 1929 he was appointed associate professor of psychiatry (extraordinarius). The year before, together with Beringer, he had founded and edited the Nervenarzt, an extremely lively and very successful neuropsychiatric journal.

Towards the end of his time at Heidelberg he was invited to take the chair of psychiatry at Groningen, but found that his Jewish origin was to be made an insuperable obstacle. In 1933 conditions were so difficult for Jews in Nazi Germany that emigration was for many the only course. At this time the combined vision of Edward Mapother at the Maudsley Hospital and the financial support of the Rockefeller Foundation made it possible to offer three research fellowships to Mayer-Gross, Erich Guttmann and Alfred Meyer. Germany’s loss was to be the gain for Britain of a fertilising stream of new talent, new understanding and new ideas.

Mayer-Gross came to the teaching centre of the Maudsley Hospital as a representative of the significant and important ‘Heidelberg school’. Under Nissl the central interest in psychiatry was nosological and directed to the discovery, e.g. by histopatho-logical studies, of the physical causes of psychosis. His assistants took a different line, and though this caused him pain, he gave them full freedom. The leaders of new thought were Jaspers, Gruhle and Mayer-Gross. Jaspers later abandoned psychiatry for philosophy; but the group was enlarged by the advent of Beringer, and when Wilmanns assumed the direction of the clinic he gave them full support.

Their main interest was the study of the phenomenology of mental illness, in as complete and as objective a way as possible, and without theoretical preconceptions. The nature of the morbid experience was to be elicited from the utterances and the behaviour of the patient. Together with the accumulation of observational data bearing on the most basic problems, it was also necessary to define working concepts as precisely as possible, and to establish a methodology by which psychological understandings could be made part of understanding at a more basic, e.g. physiological level.

The work led to a great strengthening of bedside clinical methods in psychiatry, to an understanding of the interaction of personality and pathological process, and to the delimitation of syndromes and operationally adequate sharpness. Although the school exercised an immense influence on German psychiatric thought, and later on psychiatric thought in other cultures such as Scandinavia and the Spanish-speaking world, it also met with considerable resistance, with the result that its leaders did not attain a normal measure of reward in advancement to University chairs. Mayer-Gross’s contribution was on a level with that of Jaspers or Gruhle; its finestflower is perhaps shown in the section on the clinical aspects of schizophrenia in Bumke’s Handbuch der Geisteskrankheiten (1932). Before he ever came to Britain Mayer-Gross had done a lifetime’s worth of work.

His influence and that of Erich Guttmann, at the Maudsley, was extraordinarily stimulating. Mapother had staffed the Hospital on a generous scale with a number of young men eager to learn. British psychiatry at that time was extremely backward in the provincial hospitals, and at the Maudsley (apart from Edinburgh, the only university post-graduate teaching centre) was decisively influenced by the psycho-biological school of Adolf Meyer.

The desire to carry out independent research had been inculcated by Mapother and Aubrey Lewis; Mayer-Gross and Guttmann showed the members of this active little community how rigorous methods could be applied to clinical research, and they provided a conceptual framework more suitable for research than anything which could be derived from Meyerian psychobiology.

In 1939, shortly before the outbreak of war, Mayer-Gross accepted the post of director of clinical research at Crichton Royal, Dumfries. He passed the qualifying examinations of the Scottish Royal Colleges, and became a naturalised British subject, changing his Christian name to William. He had an invigorating effect, not only on the Hospital, but also on Scottish psychiatry; but his influence was necessarily less than when he had been in the centre of things in London.

When he reached the time for retirement in 1955 he was as intellectually active as ever. He joined Elkes in the department of experimental psychiatry at Birmingham and helped to establish its clinical side and to start the Uffculme Clinic. During the years 1951-2 and 1956-7 he went as a representative of WHO to India, to build up a psychiatric teaching and research centre at Bangalore. The psychiatry he had helped to forge out of German system and British empiricism had now come to be recognised as having a leading status.

In 1958 he was guest professor in the Nervenklinik of the University of Munich, and in 1960 he took a similar guest-professorship in the psychiatric clinic of the University of Hamburg. Badly though he had been treated by the country of his birth, he had a mind above resentment. In these last years he was principally concerned with the immense task of collecting the material for a dictionary of psychiatry in French, German and English; but his death came too soon for this venture. He died suddenly, as the result of the second of two coronary attacks; the first (in 1949) had been insufficient to mitigate his usual ceaseless professional and social activity for more than a few months.

Together with his short and sturdy physique, nature endowed Mayer-Gross with the physical capacities and the immense energies for remarkable productivity. On the intellectual side he was gifted with unflagging interest, enthusiasm and industry, with a sober realism devoid of preconceptions or sentimentality, and a gift for picking out the ‘obvious’, however deeply it might be buried. It is difficult to say which are the more important, his contributions to the advance of knowledge, or his teaching and the influence he brought to bear on the minds of younger men.

It is noteworthy how much more influential he was, without any University teaching post in Britain, than any other teacher of psychiatry of his time. In this respect one naturally compares him with Adolf Meyer, whose influence, however, was mainly limited to his own pupils. The influence that Mayer-Gross exerted on the psychiatry of his day and of the years that have followed has been more pervasive. It has been exerted above all by his writings.

He was himself very little troubled by doubts or hesitations, and he lost no energy or time in fighting himself. Such a dynamic temperament could easily have become dangerously ruthless, but for his warm natural kindliness, his good humour, his strong sense of fair play and his zest for all aspects of life.

In 1919 he married and had one son.

Richard R Trail

[Arch. Psychiat. Nervenkr., 1962, 203, 123-36 (p), bibl.; Brit.med.J., 1961, 1, 596-7 (p), 682; Dtsch. med. Wschr., 1961, 86, 1149-50; Guardian, 17, 21 Feb. 1961; Lancet, 1961, 1, 458-60 (p), 516.]

(Volume V, page 275)

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