Magazine article Success

Doctor for the Soul: After Surviving the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl Brought the Soul Back into Western Medicine

Magazine article Success

Doctor for the Soul: After Surviving the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl Brought the Soul Back into Western Medicine

Article excerpt

While we often take for granted that physiology and psychology are intimately linked, that the health of our bodies is often dependent on the health of our minds, Western medicine has not always been so open to this idea. And while there are many schools of thought on what gives us the will to live and thrive, Viennese psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Emil Frankl was among the first to suggest that humans must have meaning before they have the will to live.

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Frankl's ideas on human psychology were very much born of his experience in World War II. A survivor of three years in Nazi work camps, he lost most of his family to the Holocaust, including his beloved first wife. Yet Frankl concluded from his horrific experience that man "can only live by looking into the future." Carefully studying the attitudes, motivations, faith, desperation and hopelessness of fellow prisoners, Frankl discovered that those few who had the opportunity to survive the Nazi work and death camps did so because they clung to hope for future happiness and fulfillment.

The author of more than 30 books published in 26 languages and the recipient of 29 honorary doctorates from universities all over the world, Frankl re-evaluated 20th century existentialism, refuting the acceptance of life's meaninglessness posited by philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre, as well as the emphasis on biological drives espoused by psychologist Sigmund Freud. Instead, Frankl recognized the human need for purpose, and he worked hard to give that purpose not just to the patients in his own practice but to the world as a whole.

His most famous book, Man's Search for Meaning, published in 1946, has sold more than 9 million copies worldwide, and a survey conducted by the Library of Congress has declared it one of "the 10 most influential books in America."

When Frankl died in 1997, Vienna Mayor Michael Haeupl said, "Vienna, and the world, lost in Viktor Frankl not only one of the most important scientists of this century but a monument to the spirit and the heart."

A Critical Decision

Born in 1905, Viktor Frankl was the son of hardworking Jewish middle-class parents. His father was director of the Social Affairs Ministry, his mother a housewife. One of three children, the young Frankl knew from childhood that he wanted to be a doctor of some kind, and he showed an early interest in people and their motivations. While in high school, he began to study psychology.

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Before he graduated, Frankl published an essay in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis and had begun to correspond with Freud. As a young man, Frankl coined the term logotherapy, a new school of psychology for which he would become famous, centered on the idea that man is driven by a will to establish meaning in his life.

Concerned with how to help others overcome the roadblocks to contentment, Frankl helped establish free counseling centers for teenagers in Vienna and several other Austrian cities in the late 1920s and began working at the Psychiatric University Clinic. He earned his doctorate in medicine in 1930 and pursued further training in neurology. Rising quickly through the ranks despite his youth, he was given responsibility for the ward for suicidal women at a psychiatric hospital in Vienna, and in 1937 he opened a private practice in both psychiatry and neurology.

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But Frankl's life changed dramatically the following year, and he was forced to close his practice when the Nazis annexed Austria. His medical license was revoked, and he was only allowed to treat Jewish patients out of his parents' home. Frankl did manage to obtain a visa allowing him to immigrate to the United States. But he was unwilling to leave his elderly parents behind, so he let it expire. That decision was a critical juncture for the young psychiatrist because it ensured he, like so many of his fellow Jews, would be deported to the Nazi's work and death camps. …

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