Kurt Robert Eissler

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Physician and psychoanalyst Kurt Robert Eissler was born in Vienna on June 2, 1908, and died in New York on February 17, 1999.

Eissler was a Freud scholar of distinction, one of the most accomplished psychoanalysts of his generation, and a prolific and original writer. He was immensely learned, and a captivating and engaging speaker whose somewhat wry but engaging sense of humor augmented the liveliness with which he enriched discussion. His interests were wide ranging. The arts always appealed to him: His knowledge of them was extensive and he spoke and wrote of them with learning and wisdom. His book on Leonardo da Vinci (1962) was followed by his two-volume psychoanalytic study of Goethe (1963), and he made important contributions to the study of Hamlet (1953, 1968) and Freud's approach to literature (1968). He wrote about ageing and death, and his book, The Psychiatrist and the Dying Patient (1966), is of permanent value. In all, he wrote twelve books and nearly one hundred papers, among which his studies of psychoanalytic technique attracted wide attention. His writings cast light on many subjects, of which schizophrenia, dream analysis, female sexual development, memory and lightning calculation, psychological factors in hypertension, esophageal spasm, psychology of jealousy, body image disturbances, and suicide will serve as more or less typical random examples.

Eissler studied psychology at the University of Vienna. He took his Ph.D. in 1934 and his M.D. in 1937. After training at the Viennese Psychoanalytic Institute, he joined the Viennese Psychoanalytic Society. There he became an assistant to August Aichhorn, a pioneer in the study and treatment of adolescent delinquency, whose Wayward Youth became a classic text. Following the Anschluss in 1938, Eissler left for Chicago and obtained the diploma of the American Board of Psychiatry. During the Second World War, in 1943, he became a captain in the US Army Medical Corps, specializing in neuro-psychiatry. That autumn, his brother Erik was killed in a concentration camp, though it was only later that Eissler learned of his fate.

He moved to New York when the war ended, and set up in private practice. In 1949, he edited Searchlights on Delinquency, dedicated to his old teacher Aichhorn. In 1952, he was one of the founders of the Sigmund Freud Archives, deposited in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, and it was as its tireless secretary that he collected so many invaluable documents about, by, or related to Freud and his associates. In this unending task he was greatly helped by Anna Freud, in the context of a warm relationship of mutual esteem. He had known her from Viennese days, and she found his friendship a great comfort. He established the Anna Freud Foundation in the United States, also in 1952, thus facilitating tax-free donations for the benefit of the Hampstead Child Therapy Course in London, and the associated clinic she had just set up. He strongly supported the work of what quickly became the world's leading center for child analytic training and for child analytic research. Anna Freud was secure in the knowledge that the Freud Archives were in safe hands, and that Eissler's devotion to all that her father stood for was absolute. She was grateful, too, for the invaluable assistance that he gave to Ernest Jones in his extensive three-volume biography of Freud, and to the help he gave to James Strachey in preparing the standard edition of Freud's psychological works.

Eissler was actively and deeply concerned about the growing flood of uninformed Freud criticism and the publicity it attracted. In particular, he objected to the misinterpretation of the early seduction theory. While Freud never denied that seduction in childhood had serious consequences for development, he was obliged to abandon his views of its role in the etiology of hysteria. Certainly, he would have hated the "recovered memory syndrome." All this is well known to serious students of psychoanalysis, but Eissler brought to the bare facts an erudition that cast fresh light on the entire issue. An unexpectedly bitter dispute over his successor to the Archives, stemming from allegations that Freud had suppressed the truth about his early seduction theory, achieved wide publicity, while Eissler's refutation of the charges failed to be given due weight. Some other criticisms of Freud sprang from misunderstandings within the profession, and these were subject to Eissler's searching scrutiny. Again, this did not always attract the attention it deserved.

Eissler could not be said to be optimistic, either about psychoanalysis in particular or civilization in general. The Fall of Man (1975) makes melancholy reading. But, when reaffirming his pessimism during conversation, he would often add: "You have to go on fighting." He was certainly no idolater of Freud or Anna Freud, but vigorously defended those principles without which, he felt, psychoanalysis would cease to be psychoanalysis.

He was sometimes accused of imposing undue restrictions on access to the Freud Archives. Peter Gay, for example, in his biography of Freud (1988), after praising Eissler for his diligence in historical research, accused him of "an addiction to secrecy" (p. 784) in making a great deal of Freud's correspondence unavailable to scholars. That view is widespread, and Eissler (1993) felt obliged to defend the policy pursued by the Archives—a policy, he argued, seriously misrepresented. It was not, he said a matter of secrecy, but of making material available only to scholars and translators who were committed to accuracy: He pointed to the mischief already done by misreadings (not necessarily wilful) of Freud's difficult script, and pointed to the "glaring inaccuracies" in some translations previously published. It is a matter of some importance to read Gay's charges (p. 784f) and Eissler's reply (1993, pp. 202f, 212f) in full, in view of the widespread misunderstandings of the position then taken by the Freud Archives.

Eissler retained to the end an old-world charm and the courtesy and consideration of a Viennese gentleman. His stimulating observations were matched by a lively interest in the activities and opinions of his visitors, and his warm hospitality was a delight to those who knew him. His wife Ruth, for many years an editor of The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, died in 1989.

See Also

Eissler-Selke, Ruth; Lehrinstitut der Wiener Psychoanalytischen Vereinigung; Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood; New York Psychoanalytic Institute; Pankejeff Sergueï; Sigmund Freud Archives; Tausk, Viktor; War neurosis.


  • Eissler, Kurt R., (Ed.) (1949). Searchlights on delinquency: New psychoanalytic studies. New York: International Universities Press.
  • Eissler, Kurt R. (1953). On Hamlet. Samiksa: 7: 85-202.
  • ——. (1955). The psychiatrist and the dying patient. New York: International Universities Press.
  • ——. (1962). Leonardo da Vinci. Psychoanalytic notes on the enigma. New York: International Universities Press.
  • ——. (1963). Goethe: A psychoanalytic study 1775-1786. Two vols. Detroit:
  • ——. (1968). Freud's approach to literature — explaining and understanding. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 23, 141-77.
  • ——. (1968). Fortinbras and Hamlet. American Imago: 25, 199-223.
  • ——. (1975). The fall of man. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 30, 589-646.
  • ——. (1993). Three instances of injustice. New York: International Universities Press.
  • Gay, Peter (1988). Freud: A life for our time. London and Melbourne: Dent.