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Alienist is an archaic term for a psychiatrist or psychologist. Despite falling out of favor by the middle of the twentieth century, it received renewed attention when used in the title of Caleb Carr's novel The Alienist (1994), and in the 2018 television series of the same name based on the novel. Although currently not often used in common parlance, the term "alienist" is still employed in psychiatric hospitals to describe those mental health professionals who evaluate defendants to determine their competency to stand trial. However, in this context professionals are more often referred to as forensic psychologists.[citation needed]

A typical context of the term in Transactions of the first Pan-American Medical Congress 1893:

"Within the past few years the neurologist and the alienist have become familiar with so many strange morbid perversions and reversions of the erotic sentiments and sexual passion that they must be considered and classified in their relation to society, to morals, and to law."[1]


Alienist from French aliéniste; (from aliéné 'insane'), from Latin alienatus; (from alienare 'to estrange', from alienus).

In popular culture[edit]

In film[edit]

  • The term appears in Harry Houdini's first feature silent film The Grim Game, written by Arthur B. Reeve and John W. Grey, and adapted for the screen by Walters Woods. A Paramount-Artcraft Picture from 1919 with Houdini as "Harvey Hanford, star reporter for The Daily Call newspaper." Alienist was used to describe "Dr. Tyson, a famous alienist and Cameron's physician," played by Arthur Hoyt.
  • The film His Girl Friday (1940), uses the term to describe the doctors who interview a convicted cop killer to determine his sanity.
  • When Kris Kringle is put on trial in the film Miracle on 34th Street (1947), several newspaper articles call the psychiatrists who examine him "alienists".
  • In the 1950 film The Astonished Heart, starring Noël Coward and Celia Johnson, the occupation of Coward's character is frequently referred to as "alienist".
  • The Alienist, a 1970 Brazilian comedy film.
  • The film Stonehearst Asylum (2014), set in 1899, uses the term "alienist" to refer to doctors who treat asylum patients.[2]

In music[edit]

In video games[edit]

  • Newspapers in the game L.A. Noire (2011) use the term to describe psychiatrist Harlan Fontaine.

In literature[edit]

  • Sir Roderick Glossop "the foremost alienist in England" appears in several novels and short stories by P G Wodehouse.
  • The title character of Joaquim Machado de Assis' 1882 novella "The Alienist" ("O Alienista") is a psychiatrist, Dr. Simão Bacamarte.
  • It is used by the fictional Dr. Simon Jordan when mentioning fellow psychiatrists in Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (1996).
  • In Agatha Christie's novel The A.B.C. Murders (1936), Dr. Thompson, "the famous alienist", is called to Scotland Yard to help Poirot and Inspector Japp find a murderer who mails cryptic letters to Poirot before each murder.[3]
  • It is used in the Gladys Mitchell novel “Here Comes A Chopper” to describe the central character, Mrs Bradley and Doctor Beni Yusman of Santiago, at the inquest. They were both offering evidence in their professional capacity as psychiatrists.
  • It is used in Daniel A. Coleman's novel The Anarchist, to describe the main character Jon Parker, who examines Leon Czolgosz, assassin of President McKinley.[citation needed]
  • It is used in Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness (1899) to describe the doctor in the Company headquarters in Belgium.
  • It was used in Sebastian Faulks' novel Human Traces (2005).
  • It appears in H.P. Lovecraft's novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927) to describe the doctors who examine the protagonist during his stay at Dr. Waite's psychiatric hospital. It also appears in his short stories "Beyond the Wall of Sleep" (1919) and "The Horror in the Museum" (1933).
  • Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy novels (set in NYC 1902,1903...), use alienist to describe the profession of Dr. Frederick Birnbaum, (continuing character) a German who studied under Freud.
  • Used in Larry Correia's Warbound (book 3 of the Grimnoir Chronicles) to describe the profession of Dr. Wells who is also a "Massive".
  • Used in Erik Larson's "Devil in the White City" to describe the views, in hindsight, of psychiatrists on Dr. H. H. Holmes
  • Used throughout the book "The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science" (author) Douglas Starr of the various psychiatrists and other mental healthcare providers mentioned throughout the book.
  • Character Miss Adelaide Addison refers refers to a “lapsed Alienist who drinks,” in “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

In television[edit]

  • It was used in The Originals season episode "Red Door", where Mikaelson family patriarch Mikael calls Cami, a therapist, an alienist.
  • It was used in the Penny Dreadful episode "Possession", where Vanessa asks Dr. Frankenstein during an examination, "meaning you will soon bring in an alienist?", and in the episode "The Night Tennyson Died", Vanessa begins seeing Dr. Seward, played by Patti LuPone, who refers to her branch of science as "alienism".
  • It was used in the Sherlock episode "The Abominable Bride", where Sherlock compares Watson to a Viennese alienist.
  • In the series Quacks, colleagues refer to the asylum medical staff character William as the alienist.
  • The Alienist, an American television miniseries.


  1. ^ C. H. Huges, President of Neurology and Psychiatry, Barnes Medical College: Erotopathia; Morbid Erotism, In: Transactions of the first Pan-American Medical Congress, held in the City of Washington, D.C., U.S.A., September 5–8, 1893. Part II, p. 1830.
  2. ^ Reed, Rex (October 22, 2014). "'Stonehearst Asylum' Is the Best Madhouse Movie Since 'Bedlam'". Observer. Archived from the original on February 17, 2015. Retrieved March 1, 2015.
  3. ^ Christie, Agatha (1936). The A.B.C. Murders. Penguin Books.

Further reading[edit]

  • "Two Alienists Report Alleged Budd Slayer Has Some Abnormalities. Two alienists reported today to Walter A. Ferris, District Attorney elect of Westchester County, that Albert Fish, 64 years old, held in the county jail for the murder of Grace Budd, is legally sane". The New York Times. New York City. December 27, 1934.