Bénédict Morel

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Bénédict Morel
Bénédict Augustin Morel.jpg
Bénédict Morel
Born 22 November 1809
Vienna, Austrian Empire
Died 30 March 1873 (1873-03-31) (aged 63)
Saint-Yon, France
Nationality France
Fields psychiatry
Influences Jean-Pierre Falret
Influenced Valentin Magnan, Cesare Lombroso, Henry Maudsley, Max Nordau

Bénédict Augustin Morel (22 November 1809 – 30 March 1873) was a French psychiatrist born in Vienna, Austria. He was an influential figure in the field of degeneration theory during the mid-19th century.


Morel was born in Vienna, Austria in 1809, of French parents. In the aftermath of the War of the Sixth Coalition Morel was abandoned by his parents, and left with the Luxembourgish Abbé Dupont and his servant Marianne, who raised him.[1]

Morel received his education in Paris, and while a student, supplemented his income by teaching English and German classes. In 1839 he earned his medical doctorate, and two years later became an assistant to psychiatrist Jean-Pierre Falret (1794–1870) at the Salpêtrière in Paris.[2]

Morel's interest in psychiatry was further enhanced in the mid-1840s when he visited several mental institutions throughout Europe. In 1848 he was appointed director of the Asile d'Aliénés de Maréville at Nancy. Here he introduced reforms towards the welfare of the mentally ill, in particular liberalization of restraining practices. At the Maréville asylum he studied the mentally handicapped, researching their family histories and investigating aspects such as poverty and childhood physical illnesses. In 1856 he was appointed director of the mental asylum at Saint-Yon in Rouen.

Morel, influenced by various pre-Darwinian theories of evolution, particularly those that attributed a powerful role to acclimation, saw mental deficiency as the end stage of a process of mental deterioration. In the 1850s, he developed a theory of "degeneration" in regards to mental problems that take place from early life to adulthood. In 1857 he published Traité des dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l'espèce humaine et des causes qui produisent ces variétés maladives, a treatise in which he explains the nature, causes, and indications of human degeneration. Morel looked for answers to mental illness in heredity, although later on he believed that alcohol and drug usage could also be important factors in the course of mental decline.

Démence précoce[edit]

Main article: dementia praecox

In the first volume of his Études cliniques (1852) Morel used the term démence précoce in passing to describe the characteristics of a subset of young patients,[3] and he employed the phrase more frequently in his textbook Traité des maladies mentales which was published in 1860.[4] Morel used the term in a descriptive sense and not to define a specific and novel diagnostic category. It was applied as a means of setting apart a group of young men and women who were suffering from "stupor."[5] As such their condition was characterised by a certain torpor, enervation, and disorder of the will and was related to the diagnostic category of melancholia. His understanding of dementia was a traditional and distinctly non-modern one in the sense that he did not conceptualise it as irreversible state.[6]

While some have sought to interpret, if in a qualified fashion, Morel's reference to démence précoce as amounting to the "discovery" of schizophrenia,[5] others have argued convincingly that Morel's descriptive use of the term should not be considered in any sense as a precursor to the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin's dementia praecox disease concept.[7] This is due to the fact that their concepts of dementia differed significantly from each other, with Kraepelin employing the more modern sense of the word, and also that Morel was not describing a diagnostic category. Indeed, until the advent of Arnold Pick and Kraepelin, Morel's term had vanished without a trace and there is little evidence to suggest that either Pick or indeed Kraepelin were even aware of Morel's use of the term until long after they had published their own disease concepts bearing the same name.[8] As Eugène Minkowski succinctly stated, 'An abyss separates Morel's démence précoce from that of Kraepelin.'[9]

Partial bibliography[edit]

  • Traité des maladies mentales. two volumes; Paris, 1852–1853; second edition, 1860. (In the second edition he coined the term démence-precoce to refer to mental degeneration).
  • Traité des Dégénérescences, 1857.
  • Le no-restraint ou de l’abolition des moyens coercitifs dans le traitement de la folie. Paris, 1861.
  • Du goître et du crétinisme, étiologie, prophylaxie etc. Paris, 1864.
  • De la formation des types dans les variétés dégénérées. Volume 1; Rouen, 1864.


  1. ^ Pick 1993, p. 44.
  2. ^ Pick 1993, pp. 44-45.
  3. ^ Hoenig 1995, p. 337; Boyle 2002, p. 46. Berrios, Luque and Villagran contend in their 2003 article on schizophrenia that Morel's first use dates to the publication in 1860 of Traité des maladies mentales (Berrios & Luque Villagran2003, p. 117; Morel 1860). Dowbiggin inaccurately states that Morel used the term on page 234 of the first volume of his 1852 publication Etudes cliniques (Dowbiggin 1996, p. 388; Morel 1852, p. 234). On page 235] Morel does refer to démence juvénile in positing that senility is not an age specific affliction and he also remarks that at his clinic he sees almost as many young people suffering from senility as old people (Morel 1852, p. 235). Also, as Hoenig accurately states, Morel uses the term twice in his 1852 text on pages 282 and 361 (Hoenig 1995, p. 337; Morel 1852, pp. 282, 361). In the first instance the reference is made in relation to young girls of asthenic build who have often also suffered from typhoid. It is a description and not a diagnostic category (Morel 1852, p. 282). In the next instance the term is used to argue that the illness course for those who suffer mania does not normally terminate in an early form of dementia (Morel 1852, p. 361).
  4. ^ Berrios & Luque Villagran2003, p. 117. The term Démence précoce is used by Morel once in his 1857 text Traité des dégénérescence physiques, intellectuelles, et morales de l'espèce humaine (Morel 1857, p. 391) and seven times in his 1860 book Traité des maladies mentales (Morel 1860, pp. 119, 279, 516, 526, 532, 536, 552).
  5. ^ a b Dowbiggin 1996, p. 388.
  6. ^ Berrios, Luque & Villagran 2003, p. 118.
  7. ^ Berrios, Luque & Villagran 2003, p. 117.
  8. ^ While Berrios, Luque and Villagran argue this point forcefully (Berrios, Luque & Villagran 2003, p. 117), others baldly state that Kraepelin was clearly inspired by Morel's lead. Yet no evidence of this claim is offered. For example, Stone 2006, p. 1.
  9. ^ Quoted in Berrios, Luque & Villagran 2003, p. 117.


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