Mayer-Gross, Wilhelm

Mayer-Gross, Wilhelm
   (William, "Willy," 1889–1961)
   Importer of German scientific rigor and psychopathological thinking to British psychiatry, Willy Mayer was born in Bingen, Germany, into a merchant’s family. Gross was his mother’s maiden name, which he adopted around the time of his marriage in 1919. He took his final exams in medicine at Heidelberg in 1912 and in 1913 began training at the psychiatry clinic under Franz Nissl. Yet, Mayer-Gross had much more interest in Jaspers’s psychopathology than in Nissl’s research in brain histology and wrote his doctoral thesis on "the phenomenology of abnormal feelings of happiness" (later published as an article in 1914 in the Journal of Pathopsychology (Zeitschrift für Pathopsychologie). As Karl Wilmanns (1873–1945) took over the clinic in 1918, Mayer-Gross continued as an assistant, becoming associate professor of psychiatry (extraordinarius) in 1929. Here, he was part of a nucleus interested in psychopathology known as the "Heidelberg school," including Jaspers, Hans Walther Gruhle (1880–1958), and Kurt Beringer (1893–1949). His 1924 Habilitation on Self-descriptions of Confusional States: the Oneiroid Form of Experience (Selbstschilderungen der Verwirrtheit: die Oneiroide Erlebnisform) is considered the first monograph to use the psychopathological method (what German psychiatrists called the "phenomenological" method); Mayer-Gross highlighted a special dream-like state (oneiroid) in psychosis and dissected its psychology; it was a form of psychosis neighboring on schizophrenia yet not schizophrenic. In the chapters on clinical aspects of schizophrenia that he wrote in 1932 for Wilmanns’ schizophrenia volume in the series Handbook of Mental Illnesses (Handbuch der Geisteskrankheiten— edited by Munich psychiatry professor Oswald Bumke [1877–1950]), the distinctive German approach to the illness received its most articulate expression. As Mayer-Gross’s biographer, U. H. Peters, notes rather poignantly, "Weeks after the appearance of this volume, the Heidelberg school was destroyed."
   As life for Jews in Germany started to become intolerable after 1933, a Commonwealth Fund of America grant together with the encouragement of Edward Mapother made it possible for Mayer-Gross, Erich Guttmann (1896–1948), and Alfred Meyer (1895–1990) to emigrate to England. Mayer-Gross was able to stay on thanks to a Rockefeller Foundation grant. Thus, together with Guttmann (who was to lead the Maudsley’s research on mescaline), Mayer-Gross brought what was possibly the most exciting orientation in psychiatry of the day to the Maudsley Hospital, where they influenced the next generation of British psychiatrists already attuned by Aubrey Lewis and Edward Mapother to the importance of research. Eliot Slater later said, "I think the effect of these Germans upon me and some others was to promote enthusiasm. You really become enthusiastic about the subject in which you spend your every day" (in Wilkinson, Talking about Psychiatry, p. 8).
   Mayer-Gross also brought clear ideas about how to do systematic research in psychiatry. After passing his qualifying exams for medicine in Britain, in 1939 he went up to Dumfries in Scotland as clinical research director of the Crichton Royal Mental Hospital, where he organized an insulin coma unit, staying at Dumfries until he retired in 1954. Then in 1955, Mayer-Gross came down to Joel Elkes’s department of experimental psychiatry at Birmingham and helped to start the Uffculme Clinic. As Munk’s Roll reports, "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" (Munk’s Roll, V, p. 277). Mayer-Gross’s final achievement was the textbook of psychiatry, Clinical Psychiatry, that he, Slater, and Martin Roth brought out in 1954. Mayer-Gross wrote most of the first draft, Slater’s task being "to turn his Germanic English into English." Interestingly, despite Mayer-Gross’s background, the textbook does not really represent the phenomenological school at all, but rather, with its emphasis on constitution and genetics, is a precursor of the biological approach. Mayer-Gross called himself, even in several of his German publications, "Willy."

Edward Shorter. 2014.

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