The Father of Psychiatry

Philippe Pinel was born in southern France in 1745. As the son and nephew of medical doctors, this was destined to be his calling as well. After obtaining his medical degree, he relocated to Paris. His desire to practice medicine was thwarted by the medical community which failed to recognize his degree. The protection of the medical guild was the real reason.

Dr. Pinel spent 15 years earning a living in non-medical work. He used his time editing a medical journal, studying mathematics, and going on zoological expeditions. When a friend of his committed suicide, he became intensely interested in the treatment of mental illness. He attributed his friend’s suicide to gross mistreatment.

He was able to gain employment at a private mental institution where he could do his own observations of mental illness. This was when he began to develop insights into different forms of mental illness and their treatment. He worked with this institution for 5 years.

Following the French Revolution, he was appointed as a physician at a hospital where 4,000 men were imprisoned for minor crimes along with 200 mental patients. He developed a connection with Jean-Baptiste Pussin, a former patient who had been successfully treated. In effect, Dr. Pinel became an apprentice to Pussin who had limited formal education but a wealth of experience.

Dr. Pinel, using what he learned from Pussin, developed what we now call moral treatment of mental illness. Moral treatment is based on humane psychosocial care. Shackles, bloodletting, and other inhumane treatments were no longer considered appropriate.

As Dr. Pinel began to work with mental patients, he began to realize that not all forms of mental illness are the same. He was able to identify characteristics and treatment approaches for these various illnesses. In effect, he created what we now know as the field of psychiatry.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Dr. Pinel was that of humanizing the treatment of persons experiencing mental illness. It took more than a century for many of his ideas of humane treatment to become adopted.

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“We would never tell someone with a broken leg that they should stop wallowing and get it together. We don’t consider taking medication for an ear infection something to be ashamed of. We shouldn’t treat mental health conditions any differently.” – Michelle Obama  

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