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Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942)


was a Russian-Jewish psychoanalyst and pediatrician, a pioneer active in the early stages of the development of the psychoanalytic movement, and has become a scholar of a worldwide repute with at least thirty-seven publications in German, French and Russian. She obtained her doctorate from the University of Zürich in 1911 on the basis of her dissertation devoted to Schizophrenia – possibly the first psychoanalytical doctoral thesis, most definitely the first psychoanalytical doctoral thesis penned by a woman. She was the second and – at the time the only – regular female member of the prestigious Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Subsequently, she became a part of the Psychoanalytic Society in Geneva and in Russia. She gave courses and lectures at European and Russian universities, worked as an analyst, a medical consultant, and joined the staff of the psychoanalytically oriented nursery founded by Vera Schmidt. She co-created an international intellectual elite that included the most prominent thinkers of the 20th century such as: Eugen Bleuler, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Carl Abraham, Eduard Claparède, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky.

Spielrein was a forerunner who foresaw many concepts we now recognize as fundamental to psychoanalysis. As Jung’s research assistant employed at the Burghölzli Psychiatric Clinic and his close friend, she decisively contributed to the formation of his basic concepts of anima, persona, individuation and shadow, and deepened his understanding of transference and countertransference, the nature of Eros and the unconscious, as well as mythology. After moving to Vienna, Spielrein joined the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society focused around Freud (October 1911). In November 1911, during one of the first meetings she attended, she presented fragments of her seminal work “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being”; the full paper was published the next year. The main thrust of the paper is the idea of instinctual life, the destructive force being a component of the reproductive force. Spielrein prefigured one of Freud’s most fundamental theories of the interplay between sex drive and death drive exploited by him in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where he acknowledged her influence.

In the course of her research, Spielrein became a forerunner of child analysis. Until recently, Anna Freud was mistakenly identified as the founder of the field, although she published her first article on child psychology in 1922, while Spielrein published eleven papers on the subject – the first one in 1913. Additionally, Spielrein anticipated studies on the importance of breast sucking, and Melanie Klein’s theory of the good breast and the bad breast. Finally, she decisively shaped Jean Piaget’s views on childhood language development, and contributed to the formation of the views of Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria.

After her murder in Russia in the Holocaust, Spielrein’s pioneering insight to psychoanalysis and her research papers fell into almost absolute oblivion for a period of over thirty-five years. She was not mentioned, or just briefly referred to, in the classic works on Freud or the history of psychoanalysis (Ernest Jones, Peter Gay, Nancy Chodorov). Her contributions were first brought into focus when the first cache of documents pertaining to her was recovered in the Psychological Institute in Geneva in 1977. She had left her personal papers with her colleague Edouard Claparède for safekeeping during her time in Russia (she never came back). A Jungian analyst, Aldo Carotenuto, published some of the recovered collection in Diario di una segreta simmetria: Sabina Spielrein tra Jung e Freud (1980), published in English as Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein between Jung and Freud (1982). It comprised some of the Spielrein-Jung correspondence dated 1911-1918, the Spielrein- Freud correspondence dated 1909-1923, selections from Spielrein’s diary in the years 1909 to 1912, and other letters from her colleagues. Carotenuto supplemented the recovered papers with “The Story” that placed Spielrein within an unfavourable framework. He laid emphasis on her personal life – most especially, on her relationship with Jung and her adolescent illness – and minimized the importance of her scientific achievements. Carotenuto situated Spielrein exclusively in a triangulated relationship with Jung and Freud, and furthermore, objectified her by reducing her to the details contained in anonymous case studies discussed by the two men in correspondence. Carotenuto’s view of Spielrein has been repeated and consolidated by many scholars, writers and creators of culture, most importantly by John Kerr, Christopher Hampton and David Cronenberg.


The 1980s and 1990s saw an intense inquiry that resulted in unearthing a large number of forgotten papers pertaining to Spielrein: these included diary extracts from 1906/1907 (Jeanne Moll), hospital records and correspondence between Jung or Bleuler and Spielrein’s family (Bernard Minder), childhood Russian diaries, German student diaries, and family letters (Irene Wackenhut and Anke Willke), Russian letters to Spielrein’s mother and excerpts from the Russian diary (Henry Lothane). The Jung Estate gave permission to release Jung’s letters to Spielrein – they appeared in a corrected German version of A Secret Symmetry (1986). German Complete Works (1987) included her doctoral dissertation, “Destruction” and thirty-two other papers dating 1912-1931. Magnus Ljunggren and Sabine Richebächer managed to contact survivors who were able to provide testimonies about Spielrein. Spielrein's texts are being systematically translated into other languages, especially English (Covington Coline & Barbara Wharton, 2003, 2015; Ruth Cape & Raymond Burt, 2018; Pamela Cooper-White & Felicity Kelcourse, 2019). Much of her rediscovered archive, however, remains in a private collection in Switzerland and has not been published or systematically studied.


Turn of the 20th century and, most importantly, 21st century saw a number of publications offering a reassessment of Spielrein's biography and scholarly achievements. The most significant included: Alexander Etkind (1997), Lothane (1999, 2007, 2012, 2016), Covington & Wharton (2003, 2015), Richebächer’s German biography (2008), John Launer’s English biography (2014), Adrienne Harris (2015), Cooper-White (2015, 2017), Michael Plastow (2018), Cooper-White & Kelcourse (2019).  

2. Spielrein family 1896, Sabina Emilia

Spielrein family: , Sabina, Emilia and Jan in front, Eva with Isaac middle row left, Nikolai and probably Mosya at back, others unknown, 1896.

9. Eva, Sabina and Emilia.png

Sabina, Eva, and Emilia.

Spielrein, Claparede, Piaget.jpg

Sabina Spielrein and other members of the Institut Rousseau: Godin, Claparde, Piaget, 1921. 

Text: Klara Naszkowska

The first two photographs appear by kind permission of Professor Magnus Ljunggren,

and the third by the Archives Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau (AIJJR)

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