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Johann Christian Reil

Johann Christian Reil (1759-1813) was the German physician who coined the term “psychiatry” in 1808. Reil was the son of minister, and studied medicine, receiving his degree in 1782. After a period of private practice, Reil received an appointment to the faculty of the University at Halle, where his reputation as a prominent physician grew. The following information could be included in a research paper about Reil.

Johann Christian Reil

Reil and Physiology

In 1795, Reil founded the journal Archiv für Physiologie, and remained its editor until his death. Reil took the works of several German philosophers and expanded upon them medically, believing that physiology should serve as the basis for medicine. Physiology is the scientific study of physical functions within a living organism, such as how cells carry out their basic biological functions. In 1802, Reil began his study of psychological disturbances in individuals, noting that many psychological disturbances were associated with fevers. This work was published in Feverish Nervous Illness. Reil’s early theories explained mental illness as a disruption of the soul. In 1803, Reil published Rhapsodies on the Application of Psychological Methods of Cure to the Mentally Disturbed, the most influential work in psychiatry before Freud.

Reil and Rhapsodies

Rhapsodies revealed the evolution of Reil’s philosophical perspective. Its author appeared to depart from the old notion that mental illness is due to a disruption in one’s autonomous judgment. Instead, he presented insanity as the disintegration of the rational self and its resulting inability to organize and construct external reality, or the non-ego. Reil in turn presented mental health as the product of a proper balance of the mental forces that emerge from the interactions of more rudimentary forces within the nervous system.

In Rhapsodies, Reil also promoted new approaches to the treatment and care of persons with mental illness. Reil used to book in part to urgently plead a cause to which he dedicated much of his public career:

  1. The creation of psychiatry as a separate a medical specialty in which the very best physicians would be specially prepared to assist and care for the mentally ill.
  2. Argued that those whose mental illnesses were deemed to be treatable should be accommodated and cared for separately from those whose illness appeared to be incurable.
  3. Argued against the euthanasia of terminal patients. Although common practice at the time was to suffocate such patients.
  4. Pleaded with caregivers to focus on alleviating their physical and emotional anguish without accelerating their deaths.

Johann Christian Reil was also a champion of public saunas and baths, both to promote public hygiene and for their therapeutic applications.

Reil’s work brought him scientific acclaim. In 1810, Reil became the chair of the medical department at the prestigious University of Berlin. In 1813, while treating wounded soldiers following the Battle of Leipzig, Reil contracted typhus and died.

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