Axel Martin Fredrik Munthe (October 31, 1857, Oskarshamn, Sweden - February 11, 1949, Stockholm) was a Swedish physician and psychiatrist, best known as the author of The Story of San Michele (1929), an autobiographical account of his work and life.
Munthe had an international character, speaking several languages (Swedish, English, French, Italian,fluently, and German at least passably), growing up in Sweden, attending medical school and opening his first practice in France, being married to an English aristocrat, and spending most of his adult life in Italy. He had a philanthropic nature, often treating the poor without charge at his medical practices, and risking his life on several occasions to help in times of war, disaster, or plague when he could have remained at a safe distance. He was a tireless advocate of animal rights, purchasing land to create a bird sanctuary near his home in Italy, advocating bans on painful traps, and keeping pets as diverse as an owl, dogs, and a baboon.
His writing is whimsical, being primarily memoirs drawn from his real-life experiences but often tinged with dramatic license. He wrote primarily of people and their idiosyncrasies, portraying the foibles of both the rich and the poor (and a few animals), often in a tragicomic fashion.
While travelling in 1875, Munthe sailed in a small boat from Sorrento to the island of Capri. Climbing the Phoenician stairs to the village of Anacapri, he came upon a peasant's house and the adjacent ruin of a chapel dedicated to San Michele and was immediately captivated by the idea of rebuilding the ruin into a home.
Munthe studied medicine in Uppsala, Montpellier, and Paris (where he was a student of Charcot), graduating M.D. in 1880 at the age of 23. Although his thesis was on the subject of gynecology and obstetrics, Munthe was deeply impressed by the pioneering work in neurology done by Professor Jean-Martin Charcot, having attended his lectures at the Salpêtrière hospital.
Paris and Italy
In 1887, he moved toCapri and managed to purchase the Villa San Michele and begin restoring the buildings there, doing much of the work himself, but also employing local residents, including three brothers and their father.
In 1890, running low on money for the renovations, he opened a practice in Rome which catered to foreign dignitaries as well as the local population. From this time on he divided his time between Rome and Capri.
Queen Victoria of Sweden
In 1892, Munthe was appointed as physician to the Swedish royal family. In particular, he served as the personal physician of the Crown princess, Victoria of Baden, and he continued in these duties while she was Queen consort, up until the time of her death in 1930, although this does not mean that he was constantly in attendance on her.
Victoria suffered from severe bronchitis and possibly also from tuberculosis. Munthe recommended that she spend her winters on Capri for her health. While initially hesitant, in the autumn of 1910 she traveled to Capri, and from then on, except during the First World War and a few years towards the end of her life, she spent several months a year on Capri.
While in residence, the Queen went to the Villa San Michele many mornings in order to join Munthe for walks around the island. Munthe and the Queen also arranged evening concerts at San Michele, at which the Queen played the piano. The Queen shared Munthe's love of animals, keeping a pet dog, and helping support his efforts to purchase Mount Barbarossa to set it aside as a bird sanctuary. Perhaps inevitably given the small local population and their close friendship, it was rumored that Munthe and the Queen were lovers, but this has not been substantiated.
Axel Munthe married his first wife, Ultima Hornberg on November 24, 1880. Hornberg was a Swedish woman he met while she was studying art in Paris. They divorced in the late 1880s, and in 1892 she remarried, to a Swedish manufacturer named Gustaf Richter. She had a boy by Richter in 1893, and died in 1895.
Hilda Munthe came from an aristocraticEnglish background. Her family owned two notable English properties; Hellens in Herefordshire, one of the oldest dwellings in England, and Southside House, a 17th century mansion on Wimbledon Common in London.
An anecdote relates that Munthe was discussing publication of The Story of San Michele with his publisher, John Murray, in the garden at Southside, and Murray related that his ancestor, also a publisher named John Murray, had sat in the same garden with Lord Byron, discussing publication of Byron's works.
In 1910-1911, Dr. Munthe had a 14-room summer home built as a wedding present for his wife. The residence, initially called Stengården (The Stone Court), has been called Hildasholm since her death in 1967.
Stengården was built amidst the trees on the edge of Lake Siljan in Dalarna. It was designed by architect Torben Grut, who would in 1912 complete the Stockholm stadium used in that year's Olympics. Hilda landscaped the home with an English garden that combines with the rocky and dramatic native landscape. It was furnished with 17th, 18th, and 19th century art and furniture from Italy, England, and France.
Mrs. Munthe and the boys usually stayed in this house during the summer, but Dr. Munthe was not there very often, spending as much time as possible at San Michele.
First World War
During the First World War, Munthe became a British citizen and served in an ambulance corps. He wrote the book Red Cross, Iron Cross about his wartime experiences.
Munthe developed an eye malady which eventually made him virtually blind and unable to tolerate the bright Italian sunlight. At this point he returned to Sweden for a number of years and wrote The Story of San Michele (published in 1929), which was well received, having been translated into at least forty-five languages and said to be one of the best-selling books of the 20th century.
An operation restored his sight, and he spent several more years at San Michele before returning to Sweden in 1942. He spent the final years of his life as an official guest of the King of Sweden.
During the Second World War, Munthe's son Malcolm Pennington Mellor Munthe served with the Special Operations Executive, working behind Nazi lines in occupied Scandinavia, and later participating in the Allied invasion at Anzio. Malcolm was seriously wounded during the war and eventually became reclusive.
Munthe tried to avoid prescription medication for his psychological cases whenever possible, often recommending hypnosis, music, and other alternative medical approaches. He was peripherally involved in Louis Pasteur's search for a rabies vaccine. He believed in euthanasia in hopeless medical situations, such as rabies, where the patient had only a period of intense pain and insanity ahead of them.
The Story of San Michele overshadows Munthe's other publications, and includes material from some of his earlier work. His earlier work can be very difficult to find and often commands high prices, however at least one book has entered the public domain and is now freely available.
Other than his thesis, his first publications covered a number of travel discourses which appeared in the Stockholms Dagblad newspaper, and which described his experiences of relief work during the cholera epidemic in Naples. These discourses came out in book form in England in 1884 as Letters From A Mourning City, 289 pages, John Murray and Sons Publishers, London. ASIN for the second edition, published in 1887, is B00087WVNO. Munthe translated this from Swedish to English himself.
Vagaries was initially published in London in 1898 and is now public domain. It was retitled Memories and Vagaries and a second edition printed in 1908. In 1930 there was a third edition, containing an added preface and a slightly different selection of stories with slightly different ordering.
Red Cross, Iron Cross was published anonymously, credited as "by a doctor in France", in London in 1916 with all proceeds going to the French Red Cross, and details some of his experiences during the First World War. A second edition, credited to Munthe, was published around 1930.
Publications in languages other than English
- Små Skizzer, Stockholm, 1888
- Bref och Skizzer, Stockholm, 1909
Letters From A Mourning City was published in Swedish in 1885 and in Italian in 1910.
Memories and Vagaries seems to have very different titles in other languages, often being titled roughly An Old Book of Man and Beasts; see that article for more information.
Several of Munthe's properties are now museums and cultural centers.
Axel Munthe willed Villa San Michele to the Swedish nation, and it is maintained by a Swedish foundation. The complex functions as a cultural center, hosting concerts, visiting Swedish scholars, and the local Swedish consulate. The foundation also maintains the Mount Barbarossa bird sanctuary, which covers over 55,000 square meters.
In 1980, a foundation (Stiftelsen Hildasholm) was formed to care for Hildasholm, the Munthe's Swedish home. Malcolm Munthe donated the home and the art and antiques it contains to the foundation, which operates it as a museum. It was designated a historic building in 1988, and underwent extensive restorations from 1995 through 1999. In addition to tours, the museum hosts art classes and concerts.
Malcom Munthe spent much of his life after the second world war remodeling the family's two mansions in England. His children formed the Pennington-Mellor-Munthe Charity Trust which maintains both Southside and Hellens Manor and operates them as museums, also hosting cultural events such as concerts, lectures, literary events, and so on. Members of the family still sometimes reside at these homes.
There have been at least two international symposia on Munthe, the second was held on 2003-09-13 at Hildasholm in Leksand, Sweden. Speakers included Dr. Ian McDonald, Levente Erdeos (architect, and former curator of San Michele), the Swedish author Bengt Jangfeldt, Dr. Peter Cottino (from Capri), Mårten Lindståhl, Dr.Katriona Munthe-Lindgren, and Professor Alden Smith from the Department of Classics at Baylor University.
- The Story of Axel Munthe by G. Munthe and G. Uezkull (1953)
- The Story of Axel Munthe, Capri and San Michele by A. Andrén (with others, 1959)
- Axel Munthe, der Artz von San Michele, directed by Rudolf Jugert, starring O.W. Fischer (as Axel Munthe), 1962.
- Boken Om Axel Munthes San Michele, Levente A S Erdeos, 1999, ISBN 9172033428
- En osalig ande. Berättelsen om Axel Munthe, Bengt Jangfeldt, 2003. In Swedish. English translation (A Lost Soul: The Story of Axel Munthe) expected Spring 2008.