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Some Biographical Notes

Thomas Szasz was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1920. He grew up as the younger of two sons in a non-religious Jewish family. His brother George is two years older than he. His family was comfortably situated. The father was a successful lawyer and estate holder. The Szasz family valued intellectual and scientific pursuits. In their youth, sibling competition strongly stimulated both boys. Szasz describes his brother as a “Wunderkind” in those years. His brother George made a career in organic chemistry, and is now living in Zurich. The brothers are still in regular contact with each other, including regarding Thomas Szasz’s work. In the acknowledgments section of his books, Szasz regularly credits George with having assisted.

Szasz studied at the “Gymnasium”* in Budapest. He enjoyed tennis and table tennis. He was the school champion in both these sports during all the eight years that he attended the school. This drive to be competitive is characteristic of him.

In those years, Szasz became impressed that jails and psychiatric institutions were two places that people went in, but never came out.

In 1938, at George’s insistence, the Szasz family decided to emigrate. The threat of national socialism was an important motivation. In the Hungary of those days there was no discrimination of Jews, other than epithets. However, in the United States at the time it was extraordinarily difficult for Jews to gain admission to universities. Only after many vain attempts was Szasz accepted at the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio. His uncle, Otto Szasz, who arrived in the United States several years earlier, taught mathematics there. Szasz remained two years, and in 1941 was awarded a Bachelor of Arts with honors in physics. Afterwards he studied medicine. In those war years it was an intensive and condensed study. He completed the theoretical part in August, 1944, receiving the Stella Feiss Hofheimer prize for the highest achievement during the entire curriculum. Internships in Boston and Cincinnati followed. He obtained his MD in 1945.

In 1946 Szasz began specializing in psychiatry. Shortly before then he had begun psychoanalytic training at the Psychoanalytic Institute in Chicago. His psychiatric training was at the University Clinic in Chicago. He was the favorite student of his trainer, F. Alexander. By continuing his specialization at the Institute of Juvenile Research in Chicago, Szasz succeeded in avoiding the obligatory internship at a mental hospital. He wished to avoid such an internship at all costs in order to not be compelled to apply electroshock to involuntary patients. Already at that time he objected to such treatment on grounds of principle and for humanitarian reasons. In practice his entire training took place outside of institutions. He only experienced out-patients. He never accepted employment in an in-patient clinic or mental hospital, so also as a psychiatrist he is experienced exclusively with patients who were not hospitalized.

Szasz held a clear position on the involuntary commitment and treatment of patients in mental hospitals already at the time he completed his analytic training in 1950 and his psychiatric training in 1951. Although he did not yet expound on his position at the time, pending the shaping of his professional identity as a psychiatrist and analyst, this position prevented him from gaining experience with hospitalized patients. It would be another ten years from this time that his first and best-known book critical of psychiatry, The Myth of Mental Illness, would appear.

Szasz’s critical attitude to psychiatry is hardly inferable from his publications up to 1956. He was on the staff of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and was considered a young genius and future director . However, he did not aspire to such a position, because he did not want the role of boss, nor did he want so many other people to be subservient to him.

In 1954 Szasz was conscripted. Two years later when discharged he was a Navy Commander. That same year he was appointed professor of psychiatry in Syracuse, a department of the University of New York State. He still holds this position.**In 1962 and 1968 he was “visiting professor” at the University of Wisconsin and Marquette University, also in Wisconsin. In the fifties Hollender also came to Syracuse. Hollender and Szasz were close friends.

Although Szasz was aware that The Myth of Mental Illness was controversial, he had not foreseen the tumultuous effect of this book. In Syracuse the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene prohibited Szasz from teaching psychiatry to medical students at Syracuse Mental Hospital. The commissioner did not do so directly, but through Hollender, who at the time was chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and director of the mental hospital. Hollender tried to solve the problem diplomatically. However, Szasz could not reconcile himself to that, and demanded that the prohibition be rescinded in the name of academic freedom of speech. Grenander writes the following about it: “… New York State’s Commissioner of Mental Hygiene tried to get Szasz fired for espousing and developing these radical ideas. The attempt was unsuccessful, and his case became a classic illustration of the principles of academic freedom. As the American Association of University Professors demonstrated, a faculty member holding tenure – and Dr. Szasz did – could not be dismissed simply because his ideas are heretical.”

The echoes of the conflict that ensued about this issue between Hollender and Szasz are still palpable among the staff of the university’s psychiatric clinic in Syracuse. It ended when Hollender transferred to Vanderbilt University.

Szasz is a “fellow,” an honorary title, and since 1983 a “life fellow” of the American Psychiatric Association. He is likewise a life member of the American Psychoanalytic Association since 1983, and “fellow” in the International Academy for Forensic Psychology. In 1971, together with Goffman and others, he founded the American Association for the Abolition of Involuntary Mental Hospitalization. It was dissolved in 1979. He was an advisor for the Institute for the Study of Drug Addiction.

Of the many honors he received, I will name as examples, the Ralph Karas Award from the Civil Liberties Union in 1967; the Annual Civil Liberties Carey lectureship from Cornell Law School in 1968; the Holmes-Munsterberg Award from the International Academy of Forensic Psychology in 1969; the C.P. Snow Lectureship from Ithaca College in 1970; and the Spiritual Freedom Award from the Church of Scientology. Further worthy of note are his appointment as honorary President of the International Committee for Human Rights in London in 1974; his honorary doctorate from Allegheny college, Pennsylvania, in 1975; the E.S. Meyer Memorial Lecture in Brisbane and Lambie-Dew Oration in Sydney, both in 1977.

Szasz married in 1951. He has two daughters, Margot Claire, who specializes in dermatology, and Susan Marie, who is a librarian. Since his divorce in 1970 and his daughters’ leaving the family home to attend college, Szasz has been living alone in a bungalow on a hillside near Syracuse. He has regular contact with his daughters, and with his mother who lives [in 1984] in the area. Aside from his wanderings in the scenic environment and his swimming, Szasz lives for his work. As a “senior professor” he is pressed by few organizational and teaching duties. He spends his time mostly writing books and articles, and traveling to give lectures both in the United States and abroad. Although he sometimes sees patients, he has more or less retired from his psychiatric and psychotherapeutic practice.

In the sixties, Szasz was quite popular with students and trainee psychiatrists. Many came to Syracuse to study or to specialize specifically because Szasz taught there. Later, particularly in the second half of the seventies, his popularity hit a low point: the trainees did not expect much from him anymore, and he was no longer a magnet. In recent years [1984] however, trainee psychiatrists are demonstrating renewed interest in Szasz’s views.

Szasz is a lively man. During discussions he may be contemplative, but also enthusiastic at moments that he is reaching the conclusions that are important to him. He is richly imaginative, and constantly tries to clarify his tenets with comparisons and analogies from history and daily life. In his enthusiasm, he tends to lapse into monologues, and is more concerned with elucidating his convictions than critically discussing them. Interrupting him is often difficult as he is so absorbed in the train of his own thoughts and associations. He is a very opinionated person, who leaves little room for doubt about his ideas. He is charming to associate with, friendly, warm, and hospitable. He treats little children thoughtfully and pleasantly. His relationship with his daughters is warm, deep, and respectful. He is of small and ecto-mesomorphic stature. His dress is conventional and inconspicuous. In his daily behavior, he is a model citizen who observes rules and laws.

In 1979 Szasz visited Hungary for the first time since his emigration. He was impressed by how psychiatry in this communist country functioned exactly as it did in the United States.

Recently [1984] he republished a series of essays under the title: The Therapeutic State: Psychiatry in the Mirror of Current Events. He is preparing a book about politics regarding mental health and mental illness. He hopes to broaden the field of his research and write a book about political philosophy.

The sources for these biographical notes are, in addition to the forewords of his books: conversations with Dr. Lakovics and Dr. Kaplan, two of Szasz’s contemporary colleagues at the University Mental Health Clinic; Current Biography 1975, pages 395-398; and in a significant portion, conversations with Szasz himself.

*In Europe this word refers to a middle and high school for superior students. – translator
**This refers to 1984 when this book was first published, in the Dutch language. Today Szasz is still professor emeritus at the same university. – translator
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